Ozil out at Arsenal & Eriksen in at Liverpool? Who the 'Big Six' should sell and sign this summer
With the international break offering time for reflection, Goal analyses what the Premier League’s top teams should do in the next transfer window
As we enter the final seven weeks of the season, the managers of every ‘Big Six’ club are preoccupied by the race for the top four or the Premier League title but, at boardroom level, attention will already be turning towards summer business.
The international break provides an opportunity for the powers that be to sit down and discuss the next steps, so we thought we would follow suit – by taking an in-depth look at Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, reviewing their tactical weaknesses and recommending areas in which they can strengthen.
This shortlist is by no means exhaustive and nor is it necessarily realistic; financial restraints will undoubtedly prevent clubs from signing every player they need.
However, with a couple of months to go until the transfer circus begins, now is a good time to be idealistic and to highlight exactly what’s wrong with the current setups.
Some of that furious gegenpressing energy has undoubtedly left Liverpool this season, and while Jurgen Klopp’s increased conservatism has dramatically improved their defensive record, it has also forced opponents to sit deeper and attempt to constrict Liverpool’s front three.
Mohamed Salah’s downturn in form is partly the result of Liverpool playing fewer wild, end-to-end matches, with Klopp’s side increasingly searching for guile in midfield.
Consequently, Liverpool are drawing more matches against top-half clubs, which is a problem that needs addressing, while their lack of cover across the back four is problematic.
Other than that, it is difficult to pick out flaws in what has been, statistically speaking, one of the best seasons in the club’s history.
Liverpool desperately need someone who can come short for the ball and pierce the opposition lines, someone who can create chances out of nothing – and particularly against teams that sit in a deep, narrow defensive shell.
Klopp should spend the summer searching for a version of Christian Eriksen or Kevin De Bruyne, although preferably a player who is more adept at dribbling with the ball than either of these players.
2) Back-up right-back
Liverpool drew three out of four Premier League games in January and February this season when Trent Alexander-Arnold was absent, highlighting his importance to the team.
Liverpool’s narrow 4-3-3 makes the full-backs particularly important to Klopp, and deep-lying opposition need to be threatened by good crosses. Liverpool should search for a high-quality back-up before the start of next season.
There aren’t many areas in which quadruple-chasing Man City can improve. It is scary to think Pep Guardiola’s side might again top 90 points, and win four major trophies, despite their best player, Kevin De Bruyne, barely featuring.
And yet we have witnessed a soft spot in their central midfield recently with Fernandinho out through injury. What’s more, a brief sticky patch in December suggests City’s defence isn’t quite as strong as it looks.
1) Defensive midfielder
Fernandinho won’t be around forever. The Brazilian has been an extraordinary player for Guardiola, simultaneously maintaining tempo with his distribution and sweeping up to prevent opposition counter-attacks. Replacing him is arguably the most difficult task facing any of the ‘Big Six’ this summer.
Ilkay Gundogan doesn’t have the defensive attributes needed to prevent opponents from breaking through the middle, as Crystal Palace and Leicester City showed in their league wins against Man City in December.
Benjamin Mendy’s injuries since joining City are a cause for concern but of greater concern is the mounting suspicion that the Frenchman is too undisciplined to function as a Guardiola full-back. When he has played, Mendy over-commits to attack, making his team vulnerable down that side of the pitch.
Another solid all-rounder like Kyle Walker would be preferable, particularly given that Danilo, Aymeric Laporte, and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all looked underwhelming while covering for Mendy.
3) Back-up centre-back
Vincent Kompany is clearly struggling to play at this level, lunging into tackles and running through mud in a City shirt this season. Nicolas Otamendi is declining at a similar rate.
John Stones and Laporte may have forged a partnership that could last for years but Guardiola still needs a more dependable third-choice centre-back.
Having failed – or perhaps refused – to sign a single player last summer, Tottenham desperately need to address one or two key areas of concern for Mauricio Pochettino.
They have enjoyed an excellent campaign in spite of their transfer inactivity and, in fact, stability has undoubtedly contributed to their success. Nonetheless, Spurs’ tactical approach will not win the title without significant upgrades.
Pochettino’s high-energy possession football requires far more athleticism in midfield, while Fernando Llorente’s toils and the weight of creative pressure on Eriksen shows Tottenham lack depth in the final third.
1) Defensive midfielder
Since losing Mousa Dembele, Tottenham have lacked a shielding central midfielder who can wriggle away from trouble and make quick, assertive passes. This is arguably the most important position on the pitch for a team like Spurs, who seek to maintain a high tempo as they recycle possession and crank up the pressure.
Eric Dier clearly falls short in this regard, while Harry Winks doesn’t have the right defensive attributes and Moussa Sissoko needs to be permanently on the move to be effective. A calming presence at the base of midfield, who can combine strong tackling with incisive passing, should be Daniel Levy’s top priority.
2) Creative midfielder
When Spurs are at their best, the likes of Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli, and Harry Kane are galloping into space in the final third. But when matches become stodgy, when opponents sit deep and mark Eriksen out of the game, suddenly Tottenham appear flat.
A more incisive passer of the ball is needed in the heart of midfield; a player who can counterbalance Sissoko’s wild energy and take some of the focus away from Eriksen.
3) Back-up striker
Llorente doesn’t make much sense as a Kane understudy because the Spaniard’s playing style is dramatically different. Spurs should not have to change their whole approach (ie pump it long into the box) whenever their talisman is out with an injury.
Unai Emery’s tactical philosophy is gradually emerging at Arsenal and although the disparity between their home and away record is slightly alarming, nobody could argue Emery has not made the most of his transitional year at the club.
The sheer variety of formations and team selections has been genius at times and at others, baffling, but he deserves praise for taking Arsenal to within three points of their 2017-18 total with seven games remaining.
His squad needs more updates than any other on this list, mostly because Emery’s style of football – high energy, intricately tactical – is so different to his predecessor Arsene Wenger.
Emery uses possession football to draw the opposition forward before hitting them with vertical counter-attacks; quite a few current Arsenal players are unable to do this.
Mesut Ozil doesn’t press hard enough to function under Emery and Aaron Ramsey is on his way out, meaning Arsenal must find a new playmaker to start at the tip of Emery’s diamond 4-4-2 – his most successful formation to date.
2) Creative winger
Alex Iwobi has made huge strides this season and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is finally coming good, benefitting from the quick one-touch passing that Emery preaches.
But Arsenal still lack a more assertive dribbler on the flanks, the kind of player who wins matches out of nothing. The club’s poor away record, 19 points from 14 games, is partly because they do not have a creative wide man to conjure a goal out of thin air.
3) Two centre-backs
But the main reason Arsenal struggle on the road is that opposition clubs tend to attack ‘Big Six’ sides more when on home soil, and the Gunners just don’t have enough quality in the centre-back positions.
Shkodran Mustafi is slow and error-prone, Laurent Koscielny is too old and suffers too many injuries, and Rob Holding isn’t of the required level. Arsenal need at least two new signings in this position.
Sead Kolasinac is decent going forward, but too often the Bosnia international is caught out of position. Arsenal’s left flank has been a weak spot all season, a situation not helped by Nacho Monreal’s erratic form over the last year.
Man Utd’s season exists in two distinct halves, of course, and while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s revival of the club’s fortunes has saved the careers of several players, the Red Devils remain a lopsided team desperately in need of reinforcements.
For the ‘United way’ to return for good – or at least last an entire campaign – they must add energy to central midfield, sign a game-changing winger, and rapidly improve the defence.
In short, Solskjaer has done well to lift the club but they are not even close to the level of Liverpool or Man City at the moment. They need more dynamism in almost every position.
1) Defensive midfielder
Nemanja Matic’s form has been steadily declining for some time now but part of the problem is that the Serb doesn’t have the agility, acceleration, or passing range to suit the modern defensive midfield position.
Solskjaer demands tempo, but Matic just slows things down – and that’s before considering he doesn’t screen attacks as well as he used to.
Victor Lindelof has been a revelation since Solskjaer’s arrival, his progressive instincts when in possession helping United maintain pressure on the opposition goal; grinding teams into submission was perhaps the defining feature of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United.
However, they lack a commanding presence, an experienced and reliable head who will lead and organise those around him.
Man Utd need to sign the player they thought they had when Alexis Sanchez arrived. There remains an overreliance on Paul Pogba, who by nature blows hot and cold, and the Frenchman would benefit from a maverick, star-quality winger in the Hazard mould stealing some focus.
Jesse Lingard is industrious and Anthony Martial offers directness, but someone to conjure special moments in congested centre-left spaces would take United to the next level.
In the modern Premier League, full-backs are more important than ever, their presence in the final third a vital outlet as the pitch narrows and clubs outside the top six become more defensive.
For Solskjaer’s side to compete for the title, they need an athletic, technical right-back who is more youthful than Ashley Young but more experienced than Diogo Dalot.
This is undoubtedly the most difficult side to assess because their transfer policy this summer depends on whether Maurizio Sarri remains in the job – and whether they’ll even be able to sign players.
At the moment, it looks like the Italian will make way in the summer, probably for a coach more in the reactive mould of Antonio Conte or Jose Mourinho.
There are some key positions in which Chelsea need upgrades no matter who leads them into the 2019-20 campaign (assuming the club get their transfer ban overturned, that is!).
Neither Ross Barkley nor Mateo Kovacic have cut it for Sarri, and even if a new head coach was to completely change formation, Chelsea need a creative midfielder who can link the lines of midfield and attack. It’s a position the club have not adequately filled since the days of Frank Lampard.
2) Hazard replacement
Real Madrid will surely sign Eden Hazard this summer now that Zinedine Zidane is back in charge of the club, which will leave a huge hole in the Chelsea squad.
Christian Pulisic’s arrival could help, but they need at least one more established player, too. Willian and Pedro are both looking their age.
Gonzalo Higuain is unlikely to remain at the club beyond his current loan spell, not least because he seemingly does not have the pace to lead the line at a Champions League club.
A striker with similar assertiveness, sharp movement, and finishing is a top priority. Chelsea just haven’t been the same since Diego Costa left.
Marcos Alonso’s attacking qualities make him a competent wing-back, while Cesar Azpilicueta is superb as a right-sided centre-back in a three, where he is asked to cover a much smaller zone of the pitch.
But neither player can balance both offensive and defensive duties well enough to play as a full-back, which is why Chelsea continually get caught out down the flanks in 2018-19. At least one of the two needs replacing.
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