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Arsenal FC

Arsenal FC

Wenger made nine changes at the City Ground and his fringe players went down 4-2 to the mid-table Championship side.

The Frenchman criticised his team after the holders relinquished their grip on the trophy, with Wenger experiencing defeat at the third-round stage for the first time since taking charge of the north London club in 1996.

Wenger insists the Gunners, who last week signed Greek defender Konstantinos Mavropanos, will do further business during the transfer window in an effort to turn things around, but said no deals were imminent.

Arsenal transfer news: Who is Konstantinos Mavropanos? Profile on Greek centre-back Wenger has signed

“I cannot give you any news on any transfer because we are not close to signing anybody,” he said.

“We signed a Greek boy (Mavropanos) who looks quite good in training but apart from that, we have not done anything. Will we be out there to do something? Yes we will.”

Asked whether there could be developments this week, Wenger said: “Yes, because we are in the second week of January and, after that, it passes quickly.”

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Arsenal FC

Arsenal FC

Arsene Wenger believes Mesut Ozil is enjoying his best run of form in an Arsenal shirt ahead of a hectic festive period which will see his side face West Ham, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and West Brom.

Ozil, who is currently involved in a contract stand-off with the Gunners, scored a spectacular winner against Newcastle United on Saturday to help Arsenal to a tenth league win of the season.

The German superstar now has three goals and five assists for the campaign and Wenger insists he is in the form of his life ahead of Tuesday’s Carabao Cup clash with West Ham and Friday’s Premier League fixture against Liverpool.

Asked whether Ozil was enjoying his most consistent spell for the club, Wenger said: ‘Yes. Certainly, I think he takes responsibilities and that is what you want from him.

‘He is mature, he guides the team, they are aware he is on the ball a lot – always your heart rate goes down when he has the ball.

‘Not only his goal but I would say more important is the quality and the influence he has on the collective game.

‘You cannot score a goal like that every week, but you can play like he plays usually every week. So that is more important. If he adds that to his game then that is even more important.’

Ozil is yet to put pen to paper on a contract extension at the Emirates but Wenger remains confident that the 29-year-old, who has been linked with Manchester United and Barcelona, wants to stay put.

And the French boss refused to be drawn into whether Ozil staying was more or less important than a clarification over Alexis Sanchez’s future.

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Shkodran Mustafi

Shkodran Mustafi

The fact that the football culture war between stat aficionados and obstinate traditionalists continues to rage is proof it has not been won by either side. Those who adopt a more balanced view acknowledge that statistics can shed light, but also obscure; they can be revelatory or act as a work of misdirection. At the moment, at least, numbers are still an adornment to football, rather than the key to unlocking its inner secrets.

Still, one particularly impressive stat which did the rounds at the weekend threatened to reveal something significant about Arsenal. Following a 1-0 win over Burnley, it was trumpeted that Arsenal are yet to concede a goal when Nacho Monreal, Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny play together in defence.

As well as the stirring late win at Turf Moor — the third time in a row Arsenal have beaten Burnley with a goal in injury time, and the second time in a row that goal has been a penalty scored by Alexis Sanchez — the trio have kept clean sheets in a 3-0 home win over Bournemouth, the 0-0 draw away at Chelsea, a 2-0 home win over West Brom and the 2-0 victory over Tottenham on Nov. 18. Hardly a roll call of the division’s easiest sides.

It was not widely noted that in each of these games, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac have started either side of the back three and Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka have occupied the space in front of them. The focus has been on the nub of the defensive unit and it is worth looking at why it seems to work for Arsenal — for now at least.

Successful football teams are all about balance. Think of how Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg complemented each other with very contrasting styles on either flank, or the interplay between Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright. The alchemy of winning comes in discovering partnerships and collectives which allow all component parts to play to their strengths.

This particular back three gives licence to Koscielny to attack the ball when he wants, and take the ball out from the back when he wants, too. For Monreal, on the opposite side of the three, it allows him to occasionally indulge his full-back sensibilities: as well as making some crucial defensive interventions like his goal-line clearance to prevent Jay Rodriguez scoring for West Brom, the Spaniard is also venturing forward regularly, firing off a few shots against Burnley to widespread amusement.

But it is surely the central member of the unit who has benefitted most from its deployment.

Mustafi finished last season in a state of dislocation. He featured in the new back three but alongside a rotating cast of partners. Injured for the FA Cup final win over Chelsea, he was reportedly close to a move to Inter Milan at one stage over the summer. But given another chance to show his credentials, he is certainly proving his worth now.

For Mustafi, the stats are even more pronounced. Arsenal have conceded only once in the seven league games he has started. In the six he has missed, they have conceded 15. Not the biggest physically, his strengths lie instead in defensive organisation and anticipation. Following a monumental display in the win over Tottenham, he was exceptional again when facing a tough test at Burnley. He has become quietly crucial to this team.

If the move to Milan had materialised then Mustafi would have been a footnote in Arsenal’s recent history. But sometimes the best football solutions are messy ones and, for now, this back three appears to have developed a very good understanding. Mustafi is the brain at the centre of it all.

“I’d like to congratulate our three centre-backs again today,” Wenger said after the Burnley game, “because they did a remarkable job.” Whether you want numbers to bolster your argument or not, the evidence is clear.