Arsenal legend Lee Dixon gives his honest & exclusive opinion on all things Arsenal.
Speaking to BettingSites.co.uk, Dixon reveals his prediction for the league title, why he thinks Arteta’s team are not at the levels of The Invincibles & his thoughts on the £100m rumoured Rice deal.
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- My heart & my head say Arsenal will win the league
- Rice is not worth £100m, Arsenal using him as ‘smoke screen’ for other targets
- Arsenal should go for £90m Caicedo
- Saliba is on the same level as Van Dijk & will surpass him
- Trossard’s success means I’m not lying awake at night thinking about Mudryk
- Arsenal should cash in on £30m Balogun
- Arteta’s team way off The Invincibles levels
Question: Would you say that performance against Fulham was Arsenal’s most dominant of the season?
Lee Dixon: “It’s been a funny season but it’s been a good season. As a team that’s not won the League for a while, certainly this group of players apart from Zinchenko and Jesus, it’s all new to them. During the season it’s good to have different types of performances, different types of victories. The odd upset, the odd down moment, a period of time where the team are not performing particularly well, but still winning. Then a period where you do lose a couple of games or you have a feeling that you’re not playing on top form. Because all of that goes towards building a history that you can look back on, or rely on those experiences as you get towards the very pointed end of a season where you’re going for the League. And I think this season has been like that for us.
“So a huge amount has gone right for them. They’ve been absolutely exceptional from the goalkeeper right through to all the subs on the bench. They’ve all played their part, and I think that can only help hold them in good stead. And one of those results was obviously at the weekend against Fulham, where they totally dominated with a very forceful performance. I thought Fulham were poor against Brentford but a lot of teams increase their performances up to a different level when they come up against Arsenal and they didn’t allow that to happen. And that was the most impressive thing for me at the weekend.”
Q: Arsenal have kept nine clean sheets away from home so far this season. Which players deserve the most credit for that?
LD: “Well, I think you know that the obvious ones are the two centre backs because they’ve been a problem area for quite a while previous to these two coming in. I think that the way they’ve handled Saliba in preparing for him to take up a position that looks like he’s gonna be there for years to come has been brilliant. Sending him out on loan and not listening to the noise, which is really important for a football club point of view… not listening to the outside agenda of the media and people giving their opinion about what they should do.
“They had a set pathway for certain players and they’ve stuck to that, and they’re reaping the benefits of that. And I very rarely pick out individuals as far as a defence is concerned, because I certainly wasn’t the strongest full back in the world individually, but in the collective that we formed, I became a very efficient effective member of a back four. I think Thomas Partey’s positional play in front of the 2 centre halves has really helped put them in a very stable place where they can play from without having to worry too much about stepping in and having to pick a number 10 up. Partey does a really good job sweeping up in front of them. The partnership between the centre backs on either side with the full backs, has been really important as well.
“With Zinchenko being that floating full back that we’ve seen through Pep and now other teams that are starting to do it, he plays in a role that really complements what’s around him. And Xhaka is a big part of that, because he can play that left sided left back position which enables a lot of interaction and a lot of movement from him into midfield, and it allows that space to be covered both by Gabriel and Xhaka. So an all-round defensive team performance, and not no individuals. The back 4, but certainly the protection in front of that, and it starts from the top as well. They’re pressing, and they’re connected with lines. It’s been very impressive, and that takes a huge amount of time and effort on the training ground. So all credit has to go obviously to the coaching staff. But the players have also got a buy into that which it looks like they have done.”
Q: How high do you think William Saliba’s ceiling is in comparison to say Virgil van Dijk?
LD: “It’s always difficult to compare players because it’s not just about what you see on the pitch. There’s a lot of mentality going on. I don’t know him as a person and I don’t know Van Dijk as a person. But we’ve seen enough of him to know what type of character he is, how mentally strong he is and what his weaknesses are. With Saliba, he’s so young. He’s had some good education away from the club and at the moment you wouldn’t really be able to guess his age because of his impressive positional play. He still makes the odd mistake positionally sometimes but compared to other really top class centre backs he is up there with them at the moment. It’s such a tender age, 21, so he can only get better.
“The thing about that position is you don’t learn it overnight. You get some freak kind of youngster, who can smell danger and be in the right position at the right time. Tony Adams was one of them. John Terry was in another one that was very good, very young and certainly Saliba hugely fits into that category, and you can’t see that partnership being split up for quite a few years. If they choose to stay at Arsenal and the club is successful, then it’s a real solid base to play from.”
Q: Is it fair to say Gabriel arguably has a harder job than Saliba because he has to cover at LB when Zinchenko goes into midfield?
LD: “No I wouldn’t say so. They play a different style. When you say it’s a bit more difficult, it’s also a lot easier because you’ve got an absolutely brilliant footballer standing 10 yards away from you, either outside you on the left or standing in front of you, who’s moved into a position that makes it very difficult for the players to mark him. So from a ball playing point of view he’s got an an added option, and maybe more so than Saliba has at times, because he hasn’t got that player who’s wandering and drifting into that position.
“I think Gabriel in that position, it’s almost like we’ve got two different styles of how the centre backs play on the left and the right which is difficult to play against, because they come out a different way on the left than they do on the right. So when you’re a team trying to stop that happening, you’ve almost got to split your press because it’s a different type of movement. You’ve got to be linked in a different way. So I think it causes the first line of defence for other teams problems, because they don’t come out the same way every time.”
Q: Since Martinelli has come back into the fold he’s scored 5 goals while Saka has scored 0 in the same timeframe….does Saka need to come out of the team for a break, like Martinelli did?
LD: “Possibly at some point. He’s one of those rare players; he’s a bit like Ray Parlour in that respect. When he played in front of me, he didn’t really miss a training session. He never really missed a game. He was always fit and never got injured. He always gives 100% and you got a huge amount of kilometres out of him, a huge amount of sprints and seemed to be running on Duracell batteries. We used to look at Ray and say, ‘What are you taking something oI should, I should be taking… from a vitamin point of view obviously!
“And Bukayo is the same. Alright Ray’s performances dipped sometimes, but he still warranted a place in the team because a dipped performance from him energy, wise and kilometre wise, was probably about the average of all the other players. And Bukayo is the same sometimes, you know, with his level of productivity just drops off a little bit. He still warrants playing in that position because he does an awful lot for Ben White as well. He does a lot of protection like Ray did for me. I always say that I kept Ray going but it was definitely the other way around. You know he protected me, and I was at ripe old age. I knew the position, I knew where I should be, and so I tried to limit the amount of running towards the end of my career and Ray aided that. Ben’s not of that age but I’m sure there’s a lot of times, where you know he’s thankful that the quiet Saka in front of him is still playing there.
“But Mikel will be monitoring it with the fitness coaches and the physios, and all their numbers and data they get nowadays. I’m pretty sure once he starts to stray into his red zone, which is probably miles different than anyone else’s, they’ll be wary of that. But he is such an asset to this team. You don’t wanna miss him through injury. But he’s also got so much going for him as far as physicality that you kind of want to keep pushing him because you know, he’s so valuable. They’ll be monitoring him, don’t worry about that. It’ll be a very, very tight ship. The running as far as overcooking the players. But you know what… 11 games to go. He can have a big rest in the summer, and put his feet up. There’s no tournament so he can have a nice rest in the summer with his Premier League medal round his neck. It makes summer feel a lot sweeter when you’ve got one of them dangling round your neck.”
Q: With his playing style, who does Saka remind you of from your era?
LD: “He runs beautifully with the ball. I think that’s his biggest asset. Some players are quite stiff in their upper body, and have more of an athlete’s run. But Saka’s got a silkiness about him that makes him tough to read from a defensive point of view. Martinelli on the other side, he’s a little bit more athletic, in as much as he looks like he’s sprinting. Bukayo doesn’t look as if he is sprinting because he’s got a very languid style about his body, and he’s very fluid. And that’s that’s harder to play against, because as a defender, you kind of get lulled into a false sense that he’s not actually running that quickly. So when you go and engage him you can be fooled into thinking he’s gonna get up to speed in a minute. He’s actually running very fast when he gets to you. So, and the fact he can just drop his shoulder really easily and in a very silky way. So I think that’s why he appears sometimes just to kind of walk past players. And let me tell you, he’s not walking. He’s actually moving very quickly, and so that’s probably his biggest asset is his ability to run with the ball and look as if he’s walking.”
Q: How crucial will the signing of Leandro Trossard turn out to be in the title race?
LD: “I think he’s a brilliant signing. I’ve always liked him at Brighton and it’s helped that he’s been playing in the Premier League in a very good Brighton side. So it’s not like he’s come from a team that’s struggling. He’s been in a winning team that knows the process of getting results. So I think that was a big plus he’s not had to settle down and understand the Premier League like if he’d come from abroad. He was relatively inexpensive too, whatever that means these days. He was always gonna just fit in at some point and you wouldn’t really notice he hadn’t been there for ages, and that’s exactly what’s happened.
“I think he’s the epitome of an Arteta player, in respect of his work rate, his understanding, his intelligence, his ability to just fit in and play numerous positions. With Martinelli you’ve got somebody who can play right, left or down the middle. I’m pretty sure you could play Saka down the middle if you needed him to. So I think he’s an absolutely brilliant signing and he’ll contribute a huge amount more during the last 11 games of the season.”
Q: Has it become a blessing in disguise that Chelsea outbid Arsenal for Mykhailo Mudryk?
LD: “We’ll never know that. Mudryk might go on and be Chelsea’s player of the year for the next 10 years. You don’t know. He’s obviously a huge talent. It was a massive amount of money, and there is an element of a gamble with it like there is with all big transfers. Pepe being a bigger example of that. How much they spent for him, and how that’s not worked. But you’d have to say that at the moment, Trossard is having a bigger impact for Arsenal than Mudryk is for Chelsea. And that’s and that’s a real loose way of comparing but I’m certainly not lying awake at night going ‘we’ve lost out Mudryk, and we’ve only got Trossard’, that’s for sure.”
Q: Odegaard is evidently a different type of captain from Tony Adams but how impressed have you been with his leadership credentials?
LD: “Yeah there’s different types of captains. I’m quite old school in as much as my captains were always were always a Tony Adams type. And it was then passed on to Patrick Vieira who has a similar type of dominating type of personality, and then Thierry Henry also slightly different than Tony, but still a mentality of a winner. I’ve met Martin a few times and he’s a very, perhaps shy is probably not the right word, but quiet. We’re not mates or anything. We’ve only met at functions. In fact, I presented him with his London football player of the season award last night, and we had a quick chat and then shook hands.
“But he’s got a presence about him despite his young age. I think Mikel always had him earmarked as a potential captain because of his influence? And that’s what captains need to do. They need to have an influence on the players around them. However that is. Whether it’s verbal, whether it’s by their own performance or whether it’s by dragging a team with a creative spirit like Thierry Henry. He’s so iconic to the Arsenal team now the way he plays and the position he plays, everything goes through him. So in that respect he’s a born leader for this team.”
Q: Gabriel Jesus returned against Fulham but missed a 1 on 1 as he has done on a few occasions this season. Should his finishing be a concern for Arteta?
“No, I don’t think so. I think he’s very cool. He’s hugely experienced and perhaps he’s valued more from within the team than outside. He gets into positions that enable his teammates to be able to go into other positions that they wouldn’t do if he was there. So he complements the team brilliantly. I think Arteta will look at the forwards. Obviously Nketiah has come in and taken his chance brilliantly, and suffered a little bit with an injury. But other than that, I think he’s done brilliantly well, but I think he’s definitely an area that in the summer, though they will look to.
“Irrespective of whether they win the League or not, I think it’s an area of the pitch that they’ll look to to improve again.That’s not to say that Nketiah and Jesus are doing or will do, a poor job as far as scoring goals next year. I just think you need at least 3 strikers who are in a position to play every week, and certainly any injury to either one of them is the worry. Whether Trossard plays as a false 9 or anybody else. Goals are the hardest thing to get, so they’ll be looking at that closely in the summer.”
Q: Folarin Balogun is having an excellent season and is reportedly being eyed up by AC Milan. Should Arsenal cash in on him while his stock is high? A reported £30m fee.
LD: “It’s a difficult one, because there’s a reason why he’s gone out on loan. To get some games to improve him as a player. There’s a huge difference between the Premier League and the League he’s playing in, and I mean huge. He’s doing brilliantly well, he’s got to be in position to score the goals but the quality of the defending the quality of the matches that he’s playing isn’t top tier. You know, it’s a huge difference to where he holds his registration, which is Arsenal.
“So they might have already made that decision, and it’s an added bonus now the fact that he’s scoring the goals. That pushes the price up and then they might cash in on him. I’d be surprised if he came back but that’s exactly what they did with Nketiah. He was out on loan, seemingly forever and came back and took his chance. So never say never! But he’s certainly hitting some headlines at the moment.”
Q: Does Arteta need to focus more on the PL, and change his team for the home visit from Sporting in the Europa?
“Well, it’s easy for us to sit here and say that but we’re not in training every day we’re not. I think that’s the key to it is he’s with the players day in, day out, and he can see what’s going on in training. That’ll be getting data from all the sports scientists about training data and how they’re recovering, etc. So these days it’s not a visual thing from making decisions about players. There’s a huge amount that goes into it. I think he will make some changes. But if you were looking at the opposition at the weekend, Crystal Palace and going oh, we’ve got Palace, so we can make a few changes, because they won’t be that good… That is a very dangerous place to go especially with man city Chasing breathing down your neck. So he’ll be looking at Palace thinking ‘they haven’t won in 2023 they’re gonna win a game at some point.’ This is a really dangerous game, so that might just force his hand a little bit. We certainly said, anyway. But I watched the game that they can play an awful lot better than they did last week.”
Q: Do you feel this team has the potential to match the Invincibles?
LD: “No. They’re way off it at the moment. They’ve lost games, and they’ll continue to lose games. I think that’s just the nature of this Premier League at the moment, I think, the invincible season was an incredible feat, and I said at the time, be very, very surprised if that happens again. And certainly this team has got potential to put a really long run together. But I think you know, to go the whole season would is beyond them at the moment. They’re still got a lot of development to do.”
Q: Do you think Arsenal will win the title this season?
LD: “They could be eight points clear after the weekend and that’s a huge amount. Having been in many title run-ins myself, having lost them as well as won them, I know what goes on within those last seven games of the season, and it’s terrifying. You know that last part of a run in is really scary if you’re in the lead. Not quite so scary if you’re chasing, because the pressures are eased off a bit but as soon as you catch the team, then the pressure gets piled on overnight. We were chasing Manchester United in 1998, and we were 13 points behind them, with three games in hand. We played them at Old Trafford, and we won that game which enabled us to actually catch them with our games in hand. So for the next few games the pressure just went through the roof.
“Because up until that point nobody thought we could do it, and then all of a sudden, we were in the dressing room after the game and we had beaten United one-nil. Suddenly you could see the fear in there and we were thinking, hang on a minute! It was like the tide had turned, and then the pressure gets piled on and it’s not easy to deal with. Don’t forget they’ve still got Manchester City, Liverpool and Newcastle away. So the short answer to your question is, if I had to put a bet on, I would probably still stick with Arsenal, and that’s my heart and my head. But there’s a huge part of my head knowing what’s coming for this team, and they’ve jumped over all the hurdles so far, stumbled a bit here in there, but then got back on the horse. And that’s really admirable. But the last 7, 6 to 7 games, are terrifying.”
Q: West Ham are likely to demand £100m for Declan Rice. Will Arsenal pay that much?
LD: “I don’t think Arsenal will pay 100 million. I don’t think he’s worth 100 million to be honest. I think West Ham are going to want even more than that. I don’t know who Arsenal looking at. But based on the way they’ve recruited so far I would suggest that they’ve got alternatives. Maybe Rice is a bit of a smoke screen, and they’re not really that interested. I think he’s a really good player but I’m not convinced he will be at Arsenal next season.”
Q: Would Moisés Caicedo be a better option? Does he fit Arteta’s vision more so than Rice? Or is the reported £90m+ price tag too much?
LD: “I like Caicedo. I think the Brighton model in terms of what they’re doing with their replacement of the players that they sell is brilliant. I’m a big admirer of what Brighton are all about and he certainly fits in. I think he’s a really good player.”
Q: Arsenal are crying out for a backup winger to ease the pressure on Saka and Martinelli. Who should they sign?
“Reiss Nelson has been a real asset to the squad. Summer wise I presume they’ll be looking somewhere in a wide area, but I think Trossard ticks that box as a winger, forward. Whether Reiss Nelson goes on and carries on getting better in that position I don’t know. I think that striker role is possibly a little bit more needed. From a winger point of view obviously they went for Mudryk so now whether that’s cancelled or they’ll go again is hard to say.”
Q: They’ve been linked with £50m Moussa Diaby at Leverkusen. Would he fit the bill?
LD: “I’ve not seen him play enough to be honest. I’ve seen him but not enough to say he looks like an Arsenal player. I was with Edu last night at the London Football football awards so I tried to get out of him who we’re looking at but he wasn’t giving anything away. I’m going out for dinner with him in a couple of weeks. We’ve got an Arsenal reunion dinner, and he’s going on it so I’m gonna make sure I get seated next to him.”
Q: City & Chelsea are rumoured to be ready to swoop in for 15 year old Arsenal starlet Ethan Nwaneri. What does Arteta need to do to tie Ethan down to a long-term deal at Arsenal?
LD: “There’s a whole process of firstly finding talent, keeping talent, giving talent a pathway to the first team. Bukayo Saka has shone a light on that pathway. And if you can get that right, and that’s the structure of that is not as easy as it sounds because if at any point there’s a break in any of that process a player can move somewhere else and be pinched by somebody else. Then you’ve spent all that money, and it basically goes out the back door. With Bukayo last night you could see it last night when he was getting his award and he gave a speech. The actual identity of him as an Arsenal player just shines through and through.
“You get the benefit of that ability to be able to keep players up until the first team and then progress them into the first team. It gives them a grounding and a loyalty that never leaves you. I was lucky enough that I got there early enough in my career. I had been around in the lower leagues and managed to build myself up and get myself to Arsenal when I was 23, and I was there till I was 38. I saw from the youngsters that were below me. The David Rocastles and Michael Thomas, Paul Davis and Kevin Campbells their identity and connection to the club was like, ‘Wow, I want some of that’ because I had not had that. I had been released three times as a youngster, so I didn’t really have anybody to any club to latch onto.This is a big family, and you’re staying here for a long time, and this is what you get when you do, what Bukayo’s done. And I think he’s a huge role role model for all those kids you talked about Hale End. Stepping into that first team dressing room is a huge thing for these kids.”
Q: Do you think Guardiola will leave City if they don’t win the CL this year? Can you see him going off and managing all well, having another Sabbatical.
LD: “Good luck trying to work out what’s going on Pep’s head? I think he’s found a home at City and in the Premier League seems to be the place he wants to be. I still think he’s got the passionand the Champions League target and the lore of that may keep him going. That’s an unticked box for him, as sure as Man City is concerned. We might be doing another interview after the season’s over, and we might be talking about well, Pep won the League, and won the Champions League this year. What does that mean, you know? Because it’s hugely possible.”
Q: Are you glad MOTD is returning with punditry this week? What did you make of just the highlights being shown?
LD: “I’m glad it’s back, although I did quite enjoy the 20 min of no talking. It was a novelty when it first came on, but then, after about after the first game was over, it was like I need to hear something now and then.”
Q: Should Arsenal ask Gareth Southgate that Saka doesn’t play the full 90 minutes vs Italy and Ukraine?
LD: ”I don’t think there’s any harm in asking. Well, with that you have to have the knowledge that Gareth Southgate is well in his rights to say. You can shove that where the sun don’t shine. I wouldn’t expect anything. I’m good mates with Gareth and he’s a really lovely fella, but he’s very, very passionate about how England do. And quite rightly so, and Arteta understands that he knows. I’m sure there’s a little bit of give and take here and there with England & Arsenal, and if Saka got a knock it could be bad for Arsenal’s title hopes, they’ll try and ease them into whatever training sessions, and they’re not fools that they’ve got a brilliant setup, Gareth at England, and they won’t, you know they won’t flog him. They’ll be very wary of the minutes he’s played at Arsenal.”
Q: Since Howard Webb has taken over from Mike Riley have you seen any improvements in the handling of VAR?
LD: “The easy answer to that is no. I’m kind of a fan and then I’m also not a fan. There’s lots of occasions where I go ‘that’s what VAR is for’ and I think those moments kind of cements the view in my head that it’s good for the game. But then with the next highlights section on the match of the day that we’re gonna get this weekend, there’ll be another incident where I go ‘It’s just ludicrous’. The Casemiro sending off and then the incident the day before in the Leicester game and you’re like hang on a minute. The same person was involved so how does that happen? One week it’s a mockery and the next week it’s saving the game. So I’m probably equally as confused about it as I was before Howard Webb took over. I just don’t know why we’re making it so complicated.
“I don’t live in Germany. I don’t live in other countries Wherever VAR is active, are they having the same chaos as us? Honestly just play the game. If I was a player now I wouldn’t know where I’m supposed to put my hands. What am I supposed to do with them? Even putting your hands behind your back nowadays, which I hate by the way, putting your hands behind the back is deemed as handball or whatever, because I mean to me, if your hand with your hands are behind the back that should be handball, because that’s not a natural position for your hands to be in.
“I commentate every weekend, so I’m faced with a different scenario, often in the same game, with the handball situation. The recent one I did was the Chelsea Champions League game, and their penalty is never handball in a million years, and he’s been sent over to look at the monitor on a handball that’s subjective. So that’s taken away the complete reason for doing it out of the way, if it’s subjective, then why send him over? Because it’s only his opinion against yours upstairs.”