Lauren Exclusive: Former Arsenal Invincible Says Arteta Deserves More Credit and Time to Turn Things Around
As the 2021/22 season gets underway and the summer window draws to a close, Arsenal Invincible Lauren spoke exclusively with GamblingDeals.com about his former side’s recent struggles, his favourites for the Premier League title this season, the evolution of the modern full-back, Patrick Viera’s new challenge at Crystal Palace, and much more.
- Innovative and influential Guardiola already a legendary Premier League manager alongside Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger
ML: We’ll start with the Arsenal/Chelsea game on Sunday. What are your thoughts on the defeat and Arsenal’s performance?
Lauren: It’s too early to judge the season. No one wants to see two defeats in a row but there’s still a long long way to go and we have to keep faith in the team, keep faith in the club and we’ll see improvement in the following games. Arsenal missed 11 senior players across the two league games and were clearly affected by that and not having the whole squad available. The victory in the League Cup will be a confidence boost going into the weekend and, with the senior players returning, it’ll be a big help to the younger players.
ML: One positive from Sunday was the performance of new signing Lokonga – what do you think of his start to life at Arsenal and is he a long-term solution to Arsenal’s midfield problems?
Lauren: We saw his personality. He was always keen to ask for the ball, something that you must do when playing in his position. He’s calm with the ball – he links well down the left with Saka and Tierney, gets up the pitch close to Martinelli up front. He wasn’t just a holding midfielder who sits in front of the back four. He looks composed on the ball, and as the team gets more settled and into form he will improve as well.
ML: There’s been some talk amongst Arsenal fans of signing Brighton’s Yves Bissouma after an impressive start to the season – is he a player Arsenal should be targeting?
Lauren: I think we have to focus on the players we have now. I believe the team we have now is a good squad. They’re still missing many players from the first two games so I don’t think we should focus too much on who is or isn’t going to come, but rather focus on maximising the most of the players we have right now.
ML: The defence struggled against Lukaku but they were without £50m man Ben White. Do you think the price tag is justified and he can offer stability at centre back?
Lauren: You cannot have two centre-backs with the exact same characteristics in the same team. One of them has to ideally be much better on and around the ball, comfortable using it playing the diagonal balls through to the players upfront, and be aggressive in their approach with the ball. The other doesn’t have to necessarily be as technical but can be more aggressive and physical against long balls and set pieces. Ben White is a fantastic addition because he can come out with the ball from the back and move into those positions in the midfield. In today’s game you press high to win the ball, and having Ben White means you can come out from the back and play when under pressure. His partner will possibly have to be more aggressive and stronger on set pieces. If we can match those two qualities, Ben White will prove to be a fantastic addition in the future.
ML: It is tempting to overreact to the defensive performance, but they were up against Romelu Lukaku. He’s going up against Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool this weekend. Who do you see winning that battle?
Lauren: I’m desperate to see it. Lukaku has been a fantastic player during his spell in Italy, scoring so many goals. He’s strong and can play different roles in the opposition’s half. You can use him in getting out from the back in quick transition, you can play long balls when under pressure, and he isn’t selfish. In the final third he’s been providing passes to his teammates and is a fantastic all-round player. With van Dijk, we saw that Liverpool are a different side when he’s playing. Both players have been fantastic for their clubs and it’s going to be a great battle to watch. If I have to give the edge to someone I would just give it to Lukaku, but only because van Dijk is still coming back from injury that kept him out for a long while. You need time and games when coming back from this, whereas Lukaku has stayed fit and had a fantastic Euros. He still has the shape and sharpness required to be a top striker and play at the top level. So if I have to choose someone, it’d be Lukaku.
ML: What are some realistic goals for this Arsenal team at the moment?
Lauren: It’s still too early to be thinking about this now, but we don’t have to panic. After Sunday’s game, I was initially maybe a little harsh in my reaction to the game. I feel like a fan because I want Arsenal to win – I couldn’t even sleep that night! So, after watching the game I came out with passion, but realistically you have to let the emotions settle. It’s early and we’ve only played two games – I still believe this team has potential, and against Man City on Saturday I hope and expect we’ll see a different Arsenal. But we have to improve in defending and the manner in which we’re conceding goals to compete against City. I still think this team will qualify for some form of European competition next year.
ML: Arsenal have now lost 20 of the 60 Premier League games since Arteta’s appointment. How would you assess his spell at the club so far?
Lauren: He’s won the FA Cup and Community Shield and you must respect that. Winning the FA Cup and Community Shield against Liverpool and a Chelsea side that next year would win the European Cup. We have to be positive and think that the team is going to improve. We have to look forward and only concentrate on the upcoming games rather than individuals. We can’t only think of blaming Arteta or the defence, the midfield and other individuals. It’s the time to come together and think more in the long-term about what we can do to support the team, back the team in difficult moments. Yes, this is a difficult moment. There are many players in that dressing room and they need our support to start rising up the table. We don’t want to see Arsenal losing games, and the fact is we didn’t start the season well: but I believe the team will improve in the following games. So, we don’t need to concentrate on Arteta, or the centre-backs, midfielders or other individuals. We’re a whole team and we need to improve as a team.
ML: Do you think Arsene Wenger was underappreciated towards the end of his tenure? How do you feel he would do with the current team?
Lauren: We should avoid direct comparisons because these are different moments and different times. What we have to do is look forward: whether it was Wenger or now Arteta, we should always look forward and focus on finding solutions in the following games. Of course we know what Wenger did in his 22 years at the club, it was brilliant, fantastic, but we don’t have to compare. We should get behind what we have now to help claim back our position because we want to see Arsenal fighting for the league and in the Champions League positions, and making the institution proud. We have to look forward.
ML: There has been some uncertainty around Lacazette and Aubameyang amidst reports of interest from other clubs. How important are they to Arsenal? Do you think either player is likely to leave?
Lauren: I’m not the technical director! I’m only an ex-player so I don’t have the proper answers for that, what I can say is that the stronger the squad we have the better we’ll be from now until the end of the season. Injuries and suspensions will of course play a part, so the stronger the squad we have, the better position we’ll be in. We don’t play in the Champion League. When you have a strong squad and no midweek European games it is hopefully easier to be up there fighting for the league and trophies in other competitions.
ML: How do you assess Balogun and Nketiah as back up options in the forward positions?
Lauren: It’s always nice to see players coming through the academy and playing in the first team. This has always been Arsenal, the mix of academy and senior players. The senior players do make us better and have been out of the team, so the senior players being around the youngsters makes it easy for the youngsters to shine and play. At the moment we maybe haven’t seen that as much yet. Balogun in the first game tried to get the ball but didn’t have too many chances in front of goal – the future is there, but they need to be surrounded by the top senior players to keep improving.
ML: Would Arsenal have benefitted from putting more of their budget towards a world-class striker, like Chelsea have done with Lukaku?
Lauren: Obviously, if you want to win the league, if you want to fight against Chelsea, Man City, Manchester United, all the top teams in the league, you need the best players in every position. This is even more true for a striker, it makes a lot of difference. I believe that, even if, people can say ‘Okay, Chelsea won the Champions League without Lukaku, and Werner didn’t score many goals’ but instead they have Pulisic, Havertz, Ziyech – top players that scored the goals that the number nine didn’t. Man City won the league without that number nine, Gabriel Jesus didn’t score many goals, and their top scorer last season was Gundogan. It depends on the manager. You have Pep Guardiola who didn’t need a number nine because, for example, Jesus would drop to the middle to create more superiority in the midfield. With that, you can then play a more positional game, with the two wide men high up the pitch to stretch the full-backs while you dominate possession in the middle of the pitch, and Man City won the league with that system. Chelsea won the Champions League without Lukaku but, if you have him in your side, you will have more options in order to win the league, the Champions League. What I’m saying is that if we have the best players in our team it’ll be easier for Arsenal to win things.
ML: Looking at your former position, how do you assess the options – Bellerin, Chambers, Cedric and Maitland Niles? Many saw Bellerin as having huge potential but he’s struggled with injuries. What do you think of his spell at Arsenal and his role looking ahead?
Lauren: It’s a shame he has had so many injuries. I like Bellerin, I think when he is fully fit he’s the best right-back in England. I always say that he’s got the engine to go forward. When you have that kind of attacking mentality you will always get impacted at the back – you saw that with Roberto Carlos when he was overlapping all the time, and that creates defensive problems at the back. The more offensive mentality you have in the full-back positions, there has to be improvement at the back. In my opinion, going forward, Bellerin is fantastic and he’s improved a lot defensively, but the injuries have stopped his progression. I would like to see him back at his best, because in my opinion he is the best right-back in English football. There’s Alexander-Arnold and Reece James, and a lot of available right backs at the moment, but, if I had to choose someone, I would choose Bellerin.
ML: On the subject of right-backs, there are plenty of great RBs in the league at the moment. Who are your favourites?
Lauren: Trent Alexander-Arnold. I like him: going forward, putting in crosses, and being comfortable on the ball. I also like Reece James. He was brilliant last season too. From an Arsenal perspective, I also like Maitland-Niles, he’s a good player. When you have that offensive mentality you’re always softer at the back, and this is what happened to Maitland-Niles. He’s comfortable going forward but has to work on the defensive duty to keep improving.
ML: What changes have you noticed to the right-back position in the Premier League since you were playing?
Lauren: It’s changed, but it depends on the system. If you’re playing 3-4-3 as we saw with Chelsea the other day, with the full-backs higher up the pitch, the centre-backs come out with the ball from the back and the full-backs are wide open already. If you play four at the back, you have to be more balanced. If the other full-back goes forward, you have to stay in your position and become three at the back. The full-back is a very, very important role. If you play the 3-4-3 system, you have to be in the middle as an extra man. If you play under a manager with an offensive mentality, you have to go inside into the middle and be close to the midfield players. If you play 4-2-3-1, you can go higher up the pitch once one of the midfielders comes inside, and you become like a right or left winger, so it depends on the system. In my opinion, there are four positions you play as a full-back: wide open defensively, in the middle, high up on the pitch, and if you play a flat back four you will play as a centre-back as well because, when one full-back goes up, you make a back three with the centre-backs. These are the four positions you can play as a right-back in modern football: centre-back, full-back, in the middle, and high up the pitch.
ML: Has that level of versatility become more common in recent years, or is it something you think has always been there?
Lauren: It’s always been there. In our time we started to be more offensive. If I wasn’t right-back or left-back I was a midfield player, so we started to be that kind of midfield player as full-backs. In recent years it’s more common because midfielders have become defenders. Nowadays it’s very important that, if you lose the ball high up the pitch, you have to get the ball back and then make intensive pressure in the opposition’s half. So, if you face a team that presses very well up high and doesn’t let you come out with the ball, you need players that can come out with the ball from the back. You need midfield players at the back. Therefore the role of the full-backs is very important because you need to understand the game tactically, come out with the ball, and enable the situation where the goalkeeper has the ball and the two centre-backs come inside the pitch and, rather than staying wide open, the two centre-backs will come to that position and the full-back will come inside in order to come out with the ball. This type of situation is new. 20 years ago, you would never see the centre-backs wide open and the full-backs coming inside when the goalkeeper has the ball. What happens is the goalkeeper will have the ball, the right-back comes inside to receive the ball, and who’s following the right back? The opposing left winger will follow, and you get to create a trap. When that winger follows, you open the right-back’s space for a midfielder to get into. This is all new, you couldn’t see that in our time. You have to understand what the game needs, and how to play in different ways depending on how the opposition is pressing you. It’s one of the ways to come out from the back with the ball: you open the two centre-backs, the full-back comes inside and opens the space there. The goalkeeper can play the ball to the centre-backs, the full-backs, or the midfielder who’s come into the space of the full-back who’s come inside.
ML: Would you say that it’s become harder to be a successful full-back?
Lauren: Well, you have more options to become a better footballer. This is what I believe. Of course, it’s complicated because you have to understand all the new tactical issues. I would love to be playing now because, once you understand it, it’s simpler, especially in teams that have the offensive mentality. You can’t do this with teams that don’t want to play from the back or use a goalkeeper as an extra man, to press high up. A manager without an offensive mentality will never do that.
ML: It’s been a challenging start to the season and it doesn’t get any easier with Manchester City coming up – can Arsenal get a result this weekend?
Lauren: I think there is a chance. I don’t think Tottenham are currently a better team than us and, while they were playing at home, they beat Man City. I believe we can get there and improve on what we did in the last two games. It’s possible they can beat Man City.
ML: Harry Kane has just confirmed he’ll stay at Spurs. What is your reaction to that news?
Lauren: I wasn’t convinced that he would go to Man City. It’s the best news for Spurs: they keep one of the best number 9s in worldwide football over the last decade. It’s good news for them.
ML: Is Pep already up there with the Premier League greats like Sir Alex and Arsene?
Lauren: Absolutely. He went to Germany, he won the league; he went to Spain, he won the league; he went to England, he won the league. To be able to do that in different leagues, you have to be a top manager, and he is a top manager. But the legacy of Guardiola is not just winning the league. The legacy of Arsene Wenger was the style of play of Arsenal. That legacy will continue. The impact that Wenger had in the English Premier League wasn’t just winning the league, but introducing what you have to eat, how you have to take care about your own body – before Wenger that didn’t happen. The style of players working together in the same way. This is the legacy of Wenger, we can say many other things, but this is the main thing. Now the legacy of Guardiola, when they press you high who is the player that’s free? It’s the goalkeeper, so he used a goalkeeper in order to create superiority. The full-backs, rather than staying wide open, are introduced in the middle of the park. Why Jurgen Klopp beat Pep Guardiola many times is because they press them in the middle of the park, and where is the space? In the full-back position. Have a look back at when Liverpool played Man City, you will see that when they win the ball back in the centre of the pitch they attack the space of the full-backs because the space is there. Mane goes there, Firmino, they always attack the space of the full-back because that full-back has gone inside. But this is an introduction from Guardiola. The goalkeeper, the full-backs in the middle, playing without a number nine, and they won the league. He brought so many new things to the game, so this is the legacy of what he’s doing.
ML: Who do you think will win the Premier League this year?
Lauren: It’s still a long way to go, but I will go for Chelsea. I like Tuchel because in the past when you had the ball you passed it to someone and then you get it back. Play a one-two and then you break lines, play a one-two or dribble. Nowadays, I give you the ball, you don’t give it back to me, you’re looking for that third player to attack the space behind the full-back, behind the midfield player, and behind the centre-back. That accelerated the game, so the game is faster. And what Tuchel did, every time they go to press the opponent they use three: one to go to the guy that has the ball, one goes to the next pass and the third one pays attention to the runner behind the full-back, the midfield player and the centre-back. Have a look at the game against Arsenal last week. It was very difficult to get them inside the box because there was no space, they defend very well, it was very good tactically, and when they have the ball, they pass the ball and move it forward. That is Tuchel. He did it against Real Madrid. I was watching that game, they were absolutely fantastic. But also, they’ve got Lukaku upfront and he is a beast. He can score goals, they can play in transition, they can play a more positional game, they can play a more passing game. They’ve got everything. In my opinion, if I had to put my money on someone to win the league – I wish it would be Arsenal but I can’t see them winning the league – I would go for Chelsea.
ML: What are your thoughts on Patrick Viera’s start to life at Crystal Palace and the qualities he brings as a manager?
Lauren: I saw the game against Chelsea, I saw some positives and thought he brought something new. He played that 4-4-2 that we used to play when we played together. If you look at the team, it is balanced, the shape and the approach, but it is maybe just upfront they will need to improve. They conceded three against Chelsea who are very good, but they defended very well for the first 25 minutes until Alonso scored a very good goal. But last weekend, they did well, they just need to improve in the last third. But they look good, I believe they will survive. They will be middle of the table and they won’t fight for relegation because they are a very organised team. I believe he is going to do well, Patrick Viera, he is a good manager. I saw him many times when he was at Nice, they were a very organised side. Everyone knew what to do, so he is a great coach.
ML: Manchester United equalled the Invincibles’ unbeaten Premier League away record at Southampton this week. If United do surpass it at Wolves this weekend, given there were no fans in the stadiums for most of this record, do you think Arsenal’s is a better achievement?
Lauren: I don’t mind that. I don’t care about United. Bravo for them… but I hope they lose the next away game!
ML: You came up against a young Cristiano Ronaldo at the height of the Invincibles’ powers. Did you have any idea after those early games that he would go on to have the career he has had?
Lauren: Yes, absolutely. Because what happened in our time, when we were in the tunnel – especially at Highbury – I was at the back, the last one to come out onto the pitch. I always analysed what was going on around me, and in the tunnel I was looking at the opponents, at my own teammates, and I could see the faces of the opponents. When they faced us, they were scared, they lost the game before they got onto the pitch many times. But you see Cristiano Ronaldo, he didn’t care – he was just focused on the game. He used to come to my side, and I used to say ‘OK youngster, I’m going to make a quick challenge at the start of the game’. The idea was to scare him a little bit because, if you let a youngster with ability, with that kind of manner that Cristiano had, if you let them get into the game you are a dead man. And that’s what I tried to do always, from the first challenge I’ve got to make them feel that I’m there. I used to do that to Ronaldo, but he didn’t care, he just kept on going. He had a strong personality. Apart from the quality, it was the personality, the determination, the desire, that kind of ambition — you could see from his face early on. And it was a bit different when you have a youngster. I always say to them, like my son who is playing for Sevilla now, I always say ‘You have the quality and ability, but it is more than that’. So if you understand that, it’s easy, and Cristiano Ronaldo had that. It was the same with Rooney, I remember the first time I played against him against Everton away from home. I saw the face of Rooney, they’ve [Ronaldo and Rooney] got something different and I knew he was going to be a top class player. They are calm, they don’t feel the pressure, you could see that straight away.
ML: A number of footballing greats have retired or moved from La Liga in recent years. Do you think the league has lost some of its gloss, particularly with the loss of Messi and Sergio Ramos this summer?
Lauren: Absolutely. You’re talking about the best player for the last 20 years. Messi has been an absolutely amazing player, of course they lost that. But the only positive issue in La Liga is you see Memphis Depay is coming. It’s not easy to pull on the Barcelona shirt, but to fill the shirt of Messi at Barcelona, it’s double! So, if you see Memphis Depay, he plays like he doesn’t mind who he is replacing — this is the most important thing. And it’s too early to say, but he started the season, provided assists, played without pressure, and scored that fantastic goal against Athletic Bilbao. So in one way, it’s terrible for La Liga, but if the other players put in their head that this is my time to shine as Memphis Depay did… If I was a Barcelona player or Real Madrid player, Vinicius now – Ramos is gone but Vinicius can take on that responsibility – he scored three goals in the last two games. Correa as well at Atletico Madrid. So, if I were a player in one of those teams, my mentality would be ‘OK, that man is gone so it is my time to shine’. So, for a lot of top players at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, now is their time to say ‘I am going to be the best, I want to be Messi’, even though they will never be Messi. But this is the right time to step forward. I believe amongst those teams, some players will step forward to guide them forward.
ML: What would you say Mbappé could bring to Real Madrid, and what do you think of the move generally?
Lauren: He’s a top player and can play in any league. He can play in the Spanish league, English league, Italian league. If you play for Real Madrid, it means you will become one of the best players in world football. He is looking for that. I think it is going to be a great move. To play alongside Benzema… they have a good understanding – one is quick, the other can get the ball. I’ve said many times that Benzema is like a 9/10 player. He can drop his position, play with the midfield players, go to the left, associate with the wing player, he can cross, he can go to the right-hand side, he understands football. Once the ball is played wide, you can’t go to the same side because you’ll kill the space. So, once the ball goes wide, he goes to the opposite side, just like his goal against Granada last year. He plays the ball wide to Rodrigo, he’s looking for the back of the centre-back, Rodrigo played a pass and he attacked the ball from there. So, playing with Benzema will make Mbappé’s job a lot easier. The move of Mbappé to Real Madrid would be a fantastic move for Madrid, and Mbappé too because he’d achieve his dream of playing for Real Madrid.