Nicolas Pepe says he is "deeply sorry" after being shown a red card in Arsenal's 0-0 Premier League draw with Leeds United on Sunday. 

The 25-year-old was shown a straight red after 51 minutes at Elland Road for headbutting Ezgjan Alioski.

Pepe and Alioski received abusive messages on social media following the off-the-ball incident, which were later condemned by both players' clubs.

Gunners boss Mikel Arteta described the winger's actions as "unacceptable" and the Ivory Coast international has now taken to social media to apologise for his conduct.

"Yesterday I let my team down at a crucial time of the game and there is no excuse for my behaviour," Pepe wrote on Instagram.

"I am deeply sorry and would like to apologise to the fans, my team-mates, my coach and everyone else at the club."

Pepe has struggled this season, with the game against Leeds marking just his second start in the Premier League.

He has scored once and created just two chances for his team-mates, although one of those did lead to a goal.

Arsenal and Leeds United have condemned the "vile abuse" aimed at Nicolas Pepe and Ezgjan Alioski on social media following Sunday's Premier League clash.

Pepe was shown a straight red card 51 minutes into the goalless draw at Elland Road for headbutting Alioski, the incident being spotted by VAR.

Team-mate Kieran Tierney had to be dragged away from the makeshift Leeds left-back after confronting him at the full-time whistle.

Alioski and Pepe received abusive messages on social media and their respective clubs united in releasing a statement on Monday.

"We utterly condemn the vile abuse directed at Nicolas Pepe and Ezgjan Alioski on social media following our match against Leeds United," Arsenal's statement read.

"This is completely unacceptable and we will be working with the police and authorities to do everything we can to trace and prosecute the culprits."

Former Chelsea winger Shaun Wright-Phillips screenshotted some of the racist remarks aimed at Pepe and questioned why more is not being done to halt the abuse.

A Leeds statement, posted at the same time as Arsenal's, added: "The vile abuse directed at Ezgjan Alioski and Nicolas Pepe on social media after yesterday's Premier League game with Arsenal will not be tolerated by Leeds United.

"We will work closely with the police and the footballing authorities to ensure those responsible are identified and punished."

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta accused Pep of letting Arsenal down with his "unacceptable" conduct against Leeds, with the 10 men having to hold on for a point in Yorkshire.

The Gunners have received five Premier League red cards since Arteta took over last December – at least two more than any other club in that period.

Liverpool made light work of Leicester City to move level on points with Premier League leaders Tottenham on a day that saw a couple of records broken at Anfield.

Inspired by another impressive Diogo Jota showing, the Reds eased to a routine victory to keep their positive momentum going at a time when their squad is getting more depleted by the week.

Merseyside rivals Everton were also victorious in Sunday's top-flight action with a narrow win at Fulham, while West Ham saw off Sheffield United and 10-man Arsenal were held by toothless Leeds United.

Using Opta data, we take a look at the key facts from the day's four Premier League fixtures.

 

Fulham 2-3 Everton: Calvert-Lewin at the double as Toffees inflict more capital punishment

Dominic Calvert-Lewin maintained his impressive scoring run with a couple of goals as Everton returned to winning ways in the early kick-off at Craven Cottage.

The England international scored after just 42 seconds – the earliest league goal Everton have netted since April 2017 – before Bobby Decordova-Reid's temporary leveller.

That made it goals in back-to-back home league games for Decordova-Reid for the first time since April 2018 when he was playing in the Championship with Bristol City.

Calvert-Lewin restored Everton's lead for his 10th league goal in nine outings this term, Lucas Digne setting up both that goal and Abdoulaye Doucoure's six minutes later.

Since making his competition debut in August 2018, only Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson (both 26) have more assists among defenders than Digne's 15.

A struggling Fulham side wasted a chance to get back into the game when Ivan Cavaleiro became the latest player for the south London side to miss from the penalty spot.

They have missed five of their past eight top-flight penalties, including the previous three, which have each taken by different players (Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ademola Lookman and Cavaleiro).

Ruben Loftus-Cheek did pull one back but Everton, who have conceded twice or more in six straight league games for the first time in 12 years, held on for a third straight league win in London – their best such run since April 1987.

Sheffield United 0-1 West Ham: Blunt Blades still seeking first victory

Sebastien Haller scored from outside the box for the first time in his top-flight career, on what was his 190th such appearance, to earn West Ham a slender victory at Sheffield United.

The striker, who has also previously played in the Eredivisie and Bundesliga, scored from range after 56 minutes for his sixth goal in all competitions this season – double the number of any other West Ham player.

United were unable to respond and are now without a win in 13 games in all competitions, making this their worst run since October 2013.

Chris Wilder's men have lost four top-flight matches in a row and are only the third side in Premier League history to pick up one point or fewer from their opening nine games, after Manchester City in 1995-96 and Sheffield Wednesday in 1999-2000.

West Ham are now unbeaten in their past 12 Premier League games against sides starting the day bottom, winning five in a row, and they are the first London club to win at Bramall Lane in the competition in 12 attempts since October 2006.

Leeds United 0-0 Arsenal: Hot-headed Gunners fire another blank

Arsenal failed to score for the fourth time in five Premier League outings as they played out a stalemate with Leeds at Elland Road.

Firing blanks has become the norm for Arsenal but there was nothing usual about the scoreline from Leeds' perspective – only their third goalless draw in 101 league games under Marcelo Bielsa.

Leeds now have 41 clean sheets across those 101 matches, not including play-offs, which is more than any other side in the top four tiers of English football in that period.

The Gunners have scored just nine league goals in the same number of league games in 2020-21 – their lowest tally at this stage since 1986-87 when scoring six times.

Mikel Arteta's side had to play almost an entire half with 10 men after Nicolas Pepe was given the first red card of his career in Europe's top five leagues, this being his 146th such appearance.

That was the fifth red card Arsenal have received in the league since Arteta took over in December 2019 – at least two more than any other club.

A point can be considered a good result on the balance of things given Leeds had 25 shots – the third most a team has managed in the Premier League this term, behind only Manchester United v Newcastle United (28) and Leeds v Aston Villa (27).

Liverpool 3-0 Leicester City: Rampant Reds win again at fortress Anfield

A lot has been made of Liverpool's depleted backline but makeshift centre-back pairing Fabinho and Joel Matip withstood everything Leicester chucked at them, the Reds keeping a fourth clean sheet in seven games and conceding only three times in that run.

Jonny Evans' own goal after 21 minutes put Liverpool on their way – the sixth time the former Manchester United defender has put into his own net in the Premier League, which is behind only Richard Dunne (10), Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel (both seven)

Jota doubled the hosts' advantage before half-time against his favourite opponents to become the first Liverpool player ever to score in his first four home top-flight league appearances.

It was a special goal in more ways than one, too, as it came after a sequence of 30 passes – the most in the build-up to any goal by the reigning champions since Opta started collecting data in 2006-07.

Jurgen Klopp's side added a deserved third goal to their tally late on through Roberto Firmino, who has now scored in two of Liverpool's five home league matches this term, compared to one in 19 such outings in 2019-20.

The routine home win makes it 64 home league matches without defeat for Liverpool – now officially the longest run in the club's history, with 53 of those games ending in victory.

It was another unhappy reunion with Liverpool for their former boss Brendan Rodgers, meanwhile, as he has lost all three league encounters with the Reds since taking charge of Leicester, conceding nine goals in the process.

Mikel Arteta said there was no excuse for Nicolas Pepe's "unacceptable" red card and admitted Arsenal's lack of goals is a "concern" after they clung on for a 0-0 draw at Leeds United. 

Winger Pepe was given his marching orders early in the second half at Elland Road on Sunday for headbutting Ezgjan Alioski off the ball. 

Pepe's dismissal was the fifth red Arsenal have been shown in the Premier League since Arteta took charge in December 2019, at least two more than any other club. 

Leeds struck the woodwork three times and Bernd Leno produced a string of superb saves as the Gunners held on for a point which leaves them 11th in the table. 

Arteta was not impressed with Pepe, whose contact with Alioski saw him sent off once referee Anthony Taylor reviewed footage. 

He told BBC Sport: "It is unacceptable. Unacceptable. At this level you cannot do it."

Arsenal have scored just one goal in their last five Premier League games and that was a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty in the win at Manchester United. 

The north London club have found the back of the net just nine times in the top flight this season, which is their lowest tally after nine games of a league campaign since 1986. 

Arteta, who started captain Aubameyang in a central role, knows they must offer more in the final third if they are to move up. 

When asked about the lack of goals, the Spaniard replied: "It is a concern. You need goals to win matches. We need to create opportunities." 

Pepe hit the crossbar with a cross but Arsenal registered just two shots on target, while Bukayo Saka was denied by Illan Meslier when he went clear late on. 

Arteta said: "There were two parts in the first half where we were superior and dominant and created opportunities. 

"The last 15-20 minutes we gave balls away in different positions and gave them space to attack. We were lucky not to go 1-0 down. The second half, playing this side with 10 men, is complicated." 

Nicolas Pepe was sent off but Bernd Leno frustrated wasteful Leeds United with a string of fine saves as Arsenal ground out a goalless Premier League draw at Elland Road.

Pepe, who struck the crossbar in th first half, was shown a red card for headbutting Ezgjan Alioski early in the second half on a dismal Sunday afternoon in West Yorkshire.

Toothless Leeds were the better side before Pepe's dismissal but they were unable to claim a first win over the Gunners since 2003, with Leno outstanding and Rodrigo and Patrick Bamford and Raphinha all striking the woodwork.

Arsenal defended well with 10 men to salvage a point, but they have gone over seven hours without scoring a goal from open play in the top flight, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang feeding on scraps after being given the chance to start down the middle.

Aubameyang felt Arsenal should have been awarded a penalty for handball against Liam Cooper late on, but VAR disagreed before Bamford headed against the post in a frantic finish.

Bamford poked tamely at Leno as Leeds warmed to the task after a sloppy start in the rain before a cross from Arsenal winger Pepe came back off the bar

Leno brilliantly palmed away Bamford's volley with the Whites well on top, while Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and Luke Ayling snatched at opportunities to open the scoring before the break.

Arsenal needed to show more intensity, but they were dealt a major blow when Pepe was dismissed by referee Anthony Taylor following a VAR check after clashing with Alioski off the ball.

Leno came to the Gunners' rescue again to turn a rasping drive from Dallas over the bar and Ayling could not sort his feet out when he had a golden chance laid on a plate for him by Raphinha.

Rodrigo replaced Ayling just after that missed opportunity as Marcelo Bielsa threw caution to the wind and the Spain forward smashed the bar with a superb left-footed strike 11 minutes from time.

Cooper was relieved when Aubameyang's effort hit him on the arm in the area but struck his leg first before Illan Meslier superbly denied Bukayo Saka when he raced clear.

Bamford rose to nod against the woodwork with three minutes of normal time to play and Raphinha, making his first start, also rattled the post in stoppage time as Arsenal clung on.

Manchester City are reportedly set to extend the contracts of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus as they consider another forward.

Pep Guardiola signed a two-year extension at City this week, keeping him at the Premier League giants until 2023.

And more re-signings look set to follow.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY SET TO OFFER NEW DEALS TO STERLING, JESUS

Manchester City are set to offer Raheem Sterling a new deal, according to the Mirror.

Sterling, 25, is contracted at City until 2023, but the club are hopeful he will renew on improved terms.

Also under contract until 2023, Jesus is set for a bumper new deal, the Daily Star reports.

 

ROUND-UP

- Staying at Manchester City and Pep Guardiola is considering Benfica and Uruguay forward Darwin Nunez as a successor to Sergio Aguero, according to The Telegraph. Aguero is out of contract at the end of the season.

- Also coming out of contract at the end of the campaign is Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. Corriere dello Sport says Inter are eyeing the midfielder in January, while the Serie A giants are also looking at Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul as they consider selling Christian Eriksen.

- As Olivier Giroud struggles for game time at Chelsea, the striker is linked with a move. The Mirror says David Beckham's Inter Miami are considering making an offer for the France international in January.

- Yet to play in the Premier League this season, Dean Henderson may look to leave Manchester United. The Sun reports the goalkeeper wants a January loan move to boost his chances of keeping his spot in England's squad for next year's European Championship. It says Leeds United and Brighton and Hove Albion are interested.

- Another Manchester United goalkeeper seeking an exit is Sergio Romero. The Mirror reports United are prepared to accept £2.5million for Romero in January, having wanted double that during the close season.

Mikel Arteta has no doubt Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's fallow period in front of goal for Arsenal will soon come to an end.

Aubameyang delighted the Gunners' faithful by penning a new three-year contract in September, ending mounting speculation over his future.

However, the Gabon international has not scored a Premier League goal from open play since the 3-0 opening-weekend win at Fulham.

His four in 10 across all competitions represent a goal every 209 minutes, a fall from one per 128.4 minutes as he rattled home 29 in 44 appearances last season.

Arsenal return to action at Leeds United on Sunday, with their captain having endured a far from ideal international break with Gabon. Travel problems ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against the Gambia led to Aubameyang and his team-mates apparently sleeping on an airport floor.

Arteta took a relaxed view of that farcical situation and was similarly sanguine when it came to discussing the 31-year-old's goal tally.

"The fact he signed a new contract [had no impact], he already had a contract. He signed an extended contract," he said.

"We need to help him more. He knows what he can do, the things he needs to improve in his game to be more decisive. It will come.

"I haven't known any striker in the world that doesn't have a period where he's not scoring as much.

"It's how you navigate that period and how you come back to what you've always done. It's something normal. Just take it in a natural way and don't put too much pressure on yourself.

"As coaches we try to find ways to help him as much as we can."

Along with his goals drying up, Aubameyang's shots per 90 minutes (1.5 from 2.6) and touches in the opposition box each match (3.6 from 4.6) are also down when compared to Opta data for last season.

The former Borussia Dortmund star's chances created per game are up from 0.73 to 1.2, further suggesting Arteta's decision to station him predominantly on the left of the Arsenal attack and not at centre-forward is having an impact upon Aubameyang's output.

"I'm open to many options, as I'm open to using different formations or change the team with different names," the manager explained.

"We have to accommodate our players. As you mentioned, data is very important.

"As well, the players have to build relationships. It's very important how you adjust the attacking and defensive sides in a team to get that cohesion as a team.

"There are moments when you need him in one position, moments in another position. It's always a possibility."

Mikel Arteta ensured there will be consequences when he finds out how details of an altercation between Arsenal team-mates David Luiz and Dani Ceballos ended up in the media.

The Athletic reported on Thursday that David Luiz hit Ceballos on the nose and drew blood with a scratch after taking objection to a tackle from the midfielder in a training session during the international break.

Arteta insisted the incident has been dealt with and there is no problem between the players, though he claimed not to have got a good view of what happened.

While the Gunners boss was willing to chalk it up as a typical occurrence during a competitive training session, he will not be as forgiving with whoever leaked the information to the media.

"I don't like that at all, and I will find out where it's coming from," said Arteta.

"If that's the case, that goes completely against what I expect from everyone, the privacy and the confidentiality we need. There will be consequences, yes."

Ceballos was also involved in a confrontation with team-mate Eddie Nketiah prior to the opening game of the Premier League season at Fulham.

Asked if it is just a coincidence that the Spaniard was involved on both occasions, Arteta replied: "Whether or not it's a coincidence doesn't change much.

"It's just the competitive level that we demand and the standards we want to set, but obviously there's a very thin line where it is a competitive issue and when it goes somewhere else that we don't support and we don't want.

"It's a contact sport. Incidents are going to happen. It's how you resolve them within the team and within the individuals afterwards and how you move on from there [that matters]."

Arsenal will attempt to recover from a chastening 3-0 loss to Aston Villa prior to the international break when they head to Leeds United on Sunday.

Arteta has warned his players that they will need to correct the issues that cropped up in that game or they could find themselves being handed a similar defeat.

"These things are to learn from and be part of the process we are in, and to try to improve them as quick as possible," said Arteta.

"They happened for a reason. It's not a coincidence or a surprise, they happened for a reason and we need to know when we don't do certain things they will happen again. It's not just a one-off, so we'd better not make the same mistakes again."

He added: "When I lose a football game it takes me a week to go through it, so I need another game. And when we lose the way we lost against Villa it's even harder because it makes me think about things I hated and I don't want to see again.

"There are a lot of things to change, to improve. It's going to be a bumpy road, but the optimism that I have, the belief that I have in where we are going to get, how lucky I feel with the people I have around me who support what I'm trying to do, is great.

"What I miss big time is our fans, because to build something I want with that chemistry and energy without the fans is becoming extremely difficult, because the fans and players need to see they are getting that synergy between them."

Mikel Arteta said there is "no problem" between David Luiz and Dani Ceballos after the Arsenal duo were reportedly involved in a training ground bust-up.

The Athletic alleged a physical altercation between David Luiz and Ceballos took place during the international break, though the Spanish midfielder took to Twitter to call the story "fake".

Arsenal manager Arteta insisted "nothing" happened on the training pitch at the club's London Colney base as he tried to play down the story.

"Training is very competitive and issues happen a lot of time," Arteta told a media conference on Friday.

"And those things get resolved immediately within the team. Not much [more] to say. No problem [between the two]."

When asked if had personally witnessed the incident, Arteta added: "I've got really bad vision from far. That's why we train behind closed doors."

Arteta was faced with another disciplinary issue during the international break when Brazil forward Willian posted a picture of himself in Dubai on his Instagram account.

United Kingdom government guidelines around international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic say it should be restricted "except in limited circumstances".

Willian joined Arsenal from Chelsea on a free transfer in August but has struggled to find his best form for the Gunners with no goals and just two assists in seven Premier League appearances.

Arteta refused to state if Willian's trip had broken club rules, or whether he would be dropped for Sunday's Premier League clash at Leeds United, but he has spoken to the 32-year-old about the matter.

"We had a conversation and I explained what I was expecting," Arteta explained.

"There are a lot of personal factors at the moment as well from our side and we need to be in their shoes.

"Other players are having different issues and sometimes they make decisions based on the needs or the moment or what people are expecting from them.

"Whether they are right or wrong is something we have to discuss but it's been dealt with in the right way and let's move on.

"Whatever happens internally with any issues or things we don't expect, as always we will try to resolve them internally. That's been dealt with and explained."

Arteta claimed it can be difficult for footballers to observe every single detail of coronavirus restrictions all of the time.

He added: "It's impossible because we have so many rules, guidelines that we have to follow that sometimes without even thinking you break them.

"Even in training you give a bib to someone and you think, 'Oh no, I can't do that.' We're all very aware of what we're dealing with and we take it very seriously and everyone can make a mistake.

"It's just where that mistake is coming from is the relevant thing."

Winning the Champions League will be the "focus point" for Pep Guardiola after extending his Manchester City stay, says his former assistant Mikel Arteta.

City announced on Thursday that Guardiola has signed a new two-year contract that will keep him at the Etihad Stadium until 2023.

The extended terms mean the Catalan is set to be with the Premier League club for seven years, surpassing his four seasons with Barcelona – his longest stint in charge of one club.

Guardiola cited "unfinished business" as a key reason for his decision to prolong his relationship with City and Arteta, who worked under the former Bayern Munich coach for three years before departing for Arsenal last December, believes Champions League success will be his top priority.

"I'm very pleased for him as he's never been so long at a football club, so the fact he's extending his contract means he's extremely happy there, that he's found his place, that he feels valued there and has the chemistry with players, fans and ownership," said Arteta.

"I want the best for him and if he's extended it means he's very happy and he feels that's the best place for him to continue his career, so congratulations.

"Knowing him and his ambitions and how competitive he is, unfinished business means he wants to win every competition every year for sure.

"If he needs to win the four domestic trophies again and he can do it I'm sure he's going to try. Obviously, Europe is a massive thing and he wants to move the club towards the Champions League win and that's his way.

"In the medium to long term that was one of the things he wanted to achieved, so I'm sure it will be a focus point."

Arsenal will look to bounce back from a 3-0 home defeat against Aston Villa when they face Leeds United in the Premier League at Elland Road on Sunday.

However, they will be without Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolasinac after the duo tested positive for coronavirus, while Thomas Partey remains sidelined with a thigh problem.

Asked if he knew when Partey will return, he said: "No. Well he picked up an injury very early in the [Villa] game. He tried to carry on and wanted to continue the second half and we knew it was a significant injury.

"He's working very hard, he wants to be available. Hopefully we can get him back soon but it's an area we have to be careful with and a bit protective of the player."

International football is largely over for 2020 and the Premier League is returning for the run-up to Christmas.

The next five weeks are jam-packed with action both domestically and in Europe, and hitting the ground running this weekend could give plenty of sides a timely boost.

If you're getting that fantasy team primed once more, cast your eye over our Opta-powered top tips...

 

EDOUARD MENDY

Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy finally conceded a goal in the Premier League in his last appearance, although the Blues still recovered to beat Sheffield United 4-1.

There's no reason to lose faith in the Senegal international ahead of the visit to Newcastle United this weekend.

In fact, Mendy has saved six of the seven shots on target he has faced in England's top flight, giving him a save percentage of 85.7. No keeper in the division can boast such a figure this season.

 

BEN CHILWELL

Chelsea's new-found stability means filling the backline with Blues defenders is no longer a risk to your fantasy success.

Of course, Ben Chilwell is someone who can provide plenty of points regardless of doing any actual defending.

He has been directly involved in four goals (two scored, two assisted) in five league games this season, more than any other defender.

AARON CRESSWELL

However, the prize for 2020-21's most creative defender goes to West Ham's Aaron Cresswell.

His three assists and 17 chances created are the top figures in the competition among defenders and he has been a part of three clean sheets to boot.

With the Hammers facing struggling Sheffield United this weekend, Cresswell is well worth considering.

 

JACK GREALISH

Now that doubts about his place in the England team appear well and truly dismissed, Jack Grealish can focus on the more improbable task of keeping Aston Villa in the race for Europe.

Only Harry Kane (eight) has more assists this term than Grealish (five), and only Mohamed Salah (20) has created more chances from open play (17). The Liverpool star is also the only player with more touches in the opposition box (85) than the Villa captain (70).

What's more, Grealish has scored in each of his past four appearances in all competitions against Brighton and Hove Albion, including in all three meetings last season. They are his favourite opposition.

WILFRIED ZAHA

Crystal Palace's four wins from their first eight games owes much to the form of Wilfried Zaha.

With five goals and two assists, he has already equalled the number of goal involvements that he managed in 38 league games in 2019-20.

Palace face winless Burnley on Monday.

 

GABRIEL JESUS

No Sergio Aguero? No problem. Gabriel Jesus has been involved in 11 goals in his past 11 matches in all competitions (eight scored, three assisted).

The Brazil striker has also scored in each of his previous three games and will look to stretch that run to four for the first time since April 2018 when Manchester City face Tottenham.

 

PATRICK BAMFORD

Only four players have scored more goals in the Premier League this season than Patrick Bamford - and they are only one ahead of the Leeds United striker.

Bamford has hit seven in his eight league games in 2020-21, a scoring run not seen at the club since the days that Mark Viduka graced Elland Road (he managed nine in his first eight appearances).

Given Arsenal's inconsistencies, there is every chance Bamford will pick up where he left off prior to the international break.

Mikel Arteta believes he joined an Arsenal that was "damaged and hurt badly" and the Spaniard was shocked by the disconnect between the team and supporters when he was appointed.

Arteta was hired by Arsenal in December last year, taking over as the permanent head coach following the sacking of Unai Emery at the end of the previous month.

In the intervening period, Freddie Ljungberg presided over just one win in five matches as caretaker, with Arsenal sat 10th in the Premier League upon Arteta's arrival.

A former Arsenal captain, Arteta had earned a burgeoning reputation working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and expectations of him were high.

He is widely thought to have elicited a positive response from the Arsenal squad, while he has made demonstrable strides towards implementing a style of play and philosophy, something Emery was routinely accused of failing to achieve.

But although some recent performances have given fans cause for concern, particularly the 3-0 loss at home to Aston Villa prior to the international break, Arteta has reminded supporters of the turmoil he found Arsenal in less than a year ago.

"You cannot build something new [quickly], when something has been damaged and hurt badly, that you can see a big split between even our own fans and the team," he told Arsenal's official website. "When you were in that stadium 10 months ago, I was shocked.

"You have to rebuild that [bond]. In order to do that you have to build some foundations, and afterwards start a process. You have to prioritise that process at the start, and where you are going to get to.

"To do that you need some pieces that you have to fill in there and you have to start to create a puzzle and try to manage it because there will be bad moments and you don't want to break it.

"All the time you have to be very alert because it takes very little to break what you are building."

Additionally, Arteta accepts playing in empty stadiums is not helping matters, suggesting it is having a negative mental impact on players, particularly the feeling of purpose.

Fans have been unable to attend Premier League games since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and although there were plans in place earlier this season to begin reopening stadiums this term, they have since been put on hold due to a second wave of COVID-19 sweeping across the United Kingdom.

"It is definitely affecting the players," he said. "Now, for example with the lockdown: you win at Old Trafford, you feel excited, your adrenaline is really high, you go home and you want to celebrate, you want to do something, but you just go home, by yourself - some of the players live by themselves - and you go home, sit on the sofa, and that's it.

"To find that purpose and say, 'Okay, I work so hard for this moment, I want to enjoy it, I want to have people around me' but you have nothing, so it is a completely different life.

"In our case, when you try to build a new project, you need to engage the fans with the team. They have to see live what the team is transmitting. It is completely different on the TV, you are not able to do that.

"Without creating that chemistry between players and fans, for them to believe, for them to see live what we are trying to do, it is complicated. We need that.

"The players have to feel, 'Wow, these guys are really behind us, they are really pushing, they are liking what we are trying to do... I feel more motivated, more engaged, I want to participate' - and we are lacking that."

Arsenal return to Premier League action on Sunday at Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United.

Lionel Messi first represented Barcelona's senior side 17 years ago, on November 16, 2003. It's difficult to adequately describe the impact and influence he's since gone on to have on one of the world's most illustrious clubs.

A six-time Ballon d'Or winner and long-established as Barca's all-time leading scorer, virtually every major decision that is made at the club ultimately appears to be taken with Messi in mind.

Perhaps the reality is different, but the way the Barca soap opera is played out in Spanish and Catalan media, one comes to assume it isn't just on the pitch that Messi pulls the strings.

It was this situation that made the pre-season tug of war between Messi and the club all the more damaging – while the player was adamant he could leave for free, then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu seemingly reneged on a previous agreement and stood firm.

Seventeen years on from his first appearance in the Barca team, during a friendly with Porto, it seems an opportune time to consider where Messi might go next if he allows his contract to expire next year.

So, just for a minute, let's imagine money is no object and Messi could play for anyone he chooses. What if the thrill of the game were more important to him than winning a fifth Champions League? What if he threw caution to the wind and went somewhere just for fun?

We've imagined such a scenario, and these are the teams we'd love to see him play for...

AJAX

The link between Ajax and Barca goes beyond the basics of football: it's a shared ideology, a philosophical connection, a spiritual understanding.

From Johan Cruyff to Ronald Koeman, plenty of players and coaches have shared the love of both clubs, but Messi moving to Amsterdam would turn the romance up to 11.

Messi as the focal point of an Ajax side - who are beautiful to watch as it is - is a wonderful idea, and there is even the faint prospect of Luis Suarez going back to his old club to join him one day.

Plus, given the players they have signed from Ajax in the past - Frenkie de Jong and Sergino Dest the latest - Barca probably owe the Eredivisie club a transfer favour in return.

ATALANTA

Gian Piero Gasperini's side captured the hearts of the football world in 2019-20, threatening a title challenge in Serie A and coming close to reaching the Champions League semi-finals.

They did all this on a modest budget, playing vibrant, attacking football, and all during a global pandemic that struck Bergamo and the Lombardy region harder than almost anywhere else in Europe.

The way Argentine Alejandro Gomez pulls the strings for Atalanta is a joy to watch, but imagine if Messi were doing it alongside him. Imagine them facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. Imagine Marten de Roon's Twitter feed.

Glorious, isn't it?

COLOGNE

The GOAT and the Billy Goats - what could be better?

Cologne are going through some tricky times. Markus Gisdol did a brilliant job in steadying the ship in the Bundesliga last season and was rewarded with a new contract until June 2023, though they're struggling in the bottom three this term.

They might not have won the title since 1978, but they are among Germany's most esteemed clubs, with an ardent fan base and a beautiful home city. As unlikely as it would be in any scenario, if Messi could lead them to challenge the might of Bayern Munich, it would be an unforgettable story.

If not... well, they have a goat as a mascot, for goodness' sake. It's too perfect.

NEWELL'S OLD BOYS

What could be more magical than Messi returning to where it all began? A lifelong Newell's fan, Messi was on their books as a youngster until they – and River Plate afterwards – were unable to pay for necessary growth hormone treatment.

Before then, as the story goes, Messi had scored nearly 500 goals in youth football for the club, and throughout his days as a professional he has been linked with a future move to Newell's prior to retiring.

As recently as last year Messi expressed doubt that such a "dream" could ever happen due to the needs of his family.

It is the move football romanticists will want to see and, while unlikely, Messi did leave the door open: "I will try to convince the family."

LEEDS UNITED

It might be too early for Messi to return to Newell's Old Boys, but what if he joined up with Rosario's other most famous football export in Yorkshire?

Leeds United are back in the Premier League at last, having swept all before them in the Championship in 2019-20 under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa and his big blue bucket.

The chance to help awaken a sleeping giant of the English game while playing for the man who inspired Pep Guardiola sounds like an opportunity that's too good to miss.

Plus, if he wanted to visit Sergio Aguero, Manchester is less than an hour away by train.

Neymar has tried, without success, to return to former club Barcelona in previous transfer windows.

The Brazil forward wanted to reunite with Lionel Messi.

Now, it seems Neymar is content in the French capital.

 

TOP STORY – NEYMAR HAPPY IN PARIS

Neymar wants to sign a new deal with Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain, according to Telefoot.

PSG superstar Neymar has long been linked with a return to Barcelona after leaving Camp Nou in a world-record Є222million transfer in 2017.

But Neymar – contracted until 2022 – is reportedly happy in Paris and is prepared to prolong his stay.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United star Paul Pogba has emerged as Real Madrid's alternative to Rennes sensation Eduardo Camavinga, reports Diario AS. Camavinga tops Madrid's midfield wish list following his exploits for Rennes and France. But with his transfer value continuing to rise, Madrid could turn to Pogba, who is reportedly available for €60m (£54m) in 2021. Camavinga has also been linked to PSG and United, while Pogba is reportedly being eyed by former club Juventus.

- Calciomercato claims PSG have joined Barca and Juve in the race to sign Ajax star Ryan Gravenberch.

Bruno Fernandes could leave United if the Premier League giants continue to struggle for consistency, reports Fichajes.net. Madrid, Barca, Juve and Bayern Munich have been credited with interest in the Portugal international.

- Gazzetta dello Sport says Inter are eyeing Udinese star Rodrigo de Paul, who was previously linked with Leeds United.

Juve are interested in Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli, according to Tuttosport. Sassuolo will not sell the former Milan sensation for less than €40m.

Rodrigo Moreno has been ruled out of Leeds United's clash with Crystal Palace on Saturday and Spain's three forthcoming internationals after he tested positive for COVID-19.

The 29-year-old forward has made three Premier League starts for Leeds in 2020-21, scoring his first goal for the club in a 1-1 draw with Manchester City at Elland Road in October.

After missing Leeds' 4-1 defeat at home to Leicester City on Monday because he was isolating following contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, he confirmed his own diagnosis in a post on Instagram.

"Unfortunately I have tested positive for COVID-19 after being in contact with a family member that had been infected without us knowing," said Rodrigo.

"As per the protocol I will be self isolating and will miss the game with Crystal Palace.

"Both my family and I feel great, we are lucky enough to feel healthy and we are keeping a positive attitude.

"From home I will support Leeds and the Spainish National team as a supporter and I will be back on the pitch soon. Thank you for all those who have shown concern."

Rodrigo started for Spain in their most recent fixture, a 1-0 defeat to Ukraine in the Nations League, but will not now be able to link up with Luis Enrique's squad for a friendly against Netherlands and Nations League matches at Switzerland and at home to Germany.

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