It has been 3 weeks since the Europa League final, a 4-1 capitulation to a now managerless Chelsea, and the culminating point of a dreadful end to the season. Arsenal had a top 4 spot firmly in their hands come april, until they failed to win against Brighton, Everton, Palace, Leicester and Wolverhampton, ending up 2 points behind Chelsea. Culprits have as often been designated, Unai Emery has led an inquiry to determine why the team fell apart so badly in the last few weeks of the season; Darren Burgess, director of high performance has been let go, backroom staff has been modified (more on that later) and players like Özil seem to have burned their last chance at the club.
The team now faces another year in the Europa League, a solid blow on as well as off the pitch. The transfer budget is meagre (£45M + money generated from player sales) which means that Arsenal already have to play the catch-up game in their rebuilding process, one they have tried to avoid for years and are now forced to face.
The rebuilding process
Arsenal have forced themselves into a corner in recent seasons, one short-termist decision after another, in a bid to stop their slide off Europe’s elite. As we now all know, they failed. A failure with big consequences, leaving the club with few funds to make their ideas come to life. Arsenal have spent £281M on players since 2016, in all three seasons since, they have failed to qualify for the Champions League, hence missing out on Champions League revenue while spending like a Champions League club. This led the club further into panic to stop that downward spiral, culminating in january 2018.
Arsenal gave 3 massive contracts to players between 28 and 29 (Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Özil) and spent £57M on the Gabonese striker, 6 months after signing Lacazette for £47M, a bold move justified by the lack of pace and goals in the squad, but also the addition of 3 big assets with no resale value in an already ageing squad and a club short on funds.
They still failed to qualify for the Champions League, each season out of it making it more difficult to get back into it. As of today, the club is closer to a Europa League club than a sleeping giant. Unai Emery was appointed as a safer option to provide CL football, another short-termist decision, just days before Mikel Arteta was set to replace Arsène Wenger. We’ll never know how Arteta would have fared, but Unai Emery failed his primary objective, in spectacular fashion after a dreadful finishing run in the League. While it is too early to call for his head as Arsenal head coach, one can assume that a pragmatist known for his cautiousness isn’t the best fit for a team looking to rebuild around a younger core.
A rebuild is necessary off the pitch as well as on the pitch, Arsenal lack an identity, Emery wants a chameleon team but this Arsenal team is average at most things, let alone good at them. There will most likely be improvement as the players will be more used to his methods after one full season but they need more, especially on the ball, a team with Lacazette, Aubameyang, Özil, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi shouldn’t be solely reduced to feeding Kolasinac on the overlap
However, the Spaniard will remain next season, with now ex-U23 coach Freddie Ljungberg at his side. Arsenal don’t have a lot of money but they have a lot of young talents, which they are going to need to use, to generate money or to produce in the pitch. Short-termism has emptied Arsenal’s pockets, there’s simply no other choice now than to rebuild the side.
Hale End excellence
This season has seen Arsenal’s academy products have their first-team opportunities very restricted, Maitland-Niles and Iwobi being the only regulars in the team, it being more due to fate than will for Niles, after Bellerin’s torn ACL and Emery’s realization that Lichtsteiner just wasn’t going to fit in such a key role for his tactics. Emile Smith-Rowe played a few Europa League games while Saka, Willock and Nketiah fed on whatever minutes were left for them, Willock’s introduction in the Europa League final looking more like a message sent to Özil than anything else. This will have to change, Arsenal are lucky enough to have a massively talented crop of young players in their academy, such as Nketiah (CF), John-Jules (CF), Willock (AM), Saka (LW/LWB), Amaechi (RW), Ballard (CB), Medley (CB) or Reiss Nelson (RW/LW) and Emile Smith-Rowe (AM) returning from loan.
Not all of those players will break through, some of them will generate funds for the club but the talent is there at the staff’s disposal. Arsenal lack wide players, as their only senior options out wide are Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, wide midfielders but still midfielders and Aubameyang, a penalty box striker whose pace allows him to start from a wider position. Amaechi, Saka and Nelson could be serious options for next season, all of them fitting the bill as to what Arsenal lack, pace and dribbling along with a goal threat from wide. Arsenal scored a lot of goals this season but too many games have been “Aubameyang and Lacazette against the world”, something to correct next season, as chances have been scarce, especially in the latter stages.
Contrary to their reputation, Arsenal haven’t been a good offensive team let down by a dreadful defense. The defense was indeed dreadful but the attack has been very lacklustre, with Ramsey’s minutes very limited up until march, Emery turned towards more and more cautiousness after the 22-game unbeaten run came to an end at Southampton in december, with Mkhitaryan out, Ramsey on the bench, Özil at home and Saka, Smith-Rowe and Nketiah not being called upon, Arsenal ended up being overly reliant on Iwobi launching Kolasinac in behind and the Bosnian’s rather inconsistent final ball, leading to the team getting the nickname “cutback FC”.
With the club now open to offers for Mkhitaryan, Ramsey leaving for Juve, Özil looking more out of favour by the day and Emery reportedly looking to return to his preferred 4-2-3-1, there are places up for grabs in the team, especially in the 3-man line behind the striker. Ljungberg’s appointment into Unai Emery’s staff looks like a first step towards a youth-focused project.
Outsmarting the market
As much as there is quality in it, not all of Arsenal’s issues will be solved via the Academy, Arsenal still have a bit of money to spend along with the money generated for sales. 3 weeks after our final game of the season, there hasn’t been any confirmed incoming although Gabriel Martinelli’s signing from Ituano could be confirmed anytime now. More worryingly, there hasn’t been a whole lot of speculation for the players that Arsenal are looking to move on, either to free up space on the wage bill or to generate funds for additional summer signings.
Arsenal are known to be open to offers for Özil, Elneny, Chambers, Mkhitaryan, Jenkinson and Mustafi, most of them being difficult players to sell. Mkhitaryan is on a big contract (£180 000 a week) that very few clubs would pay along with a fee, Özil is in a similar situation although even worse as Unai Emery doesn’t count on him as he does with Mkhitaryan and is on a reported £350 000 a week. Mustafi is another difficult case, as his reputation could difficultly be lower. Chambers and Elneny should generate interest and find Premier League buyers easily. Arsenal need those sales to trim a wage bill that has grown out of control in recent years while incoming money from sales and Europe revenue has kept on reducing.
Arsenal have reportedly agreed personal terms for the signings of William Saliba (18, CB, AS Saint-Etienne) and Alexis Claude-Maurice (21, LW/CAM, FC Lorient) and now need to agree fees with their respective clubs. Saint-Etienne want £27M AND to keep Saliba one year on loan, Lorient want £18M but are expected to wait to see if a bidding war allows them to recoup more money.
Those are expensive signings for two relatively unproven players but this also shows the switch in strategy from the club, looking at players for the long-term with a big upside, allowing them to either have them for a long time or sell for a profit. Outsmarting the market. Saliba leaving on loan wouldn’t help Arsenal’s competitiveness in 2019/2020 but it would allow him to have his first full season of top-level football away from the pressure of Arsenal, and possibly for the Gunners to get the stalwart of their defense for the next 12 seasons or so. The club has spent the last 5 years trying to “immediately” stop the downfall without long-term planning, leading to today’s situation where Arsenal have to do with a small budget for a big rebuilding job, with an ageing and unbalanced squad. with Chelsea and United in such a turmoil, the top 4 isn’t out of their reach next season, especially as it took quite the collapse for them to miss out on it
There is also reported interest for Sampdoria duo Joachim Andersen and Dennis Praet, a CB and CM, two positions that Arsenal are looking to reinforce. The club is reportedly looking for a winger, a CB, a box-to-box midfielder and a LB. There’s interest in Dalian Yifang’s Yannick Carrasco but the Chinese club seems to be playing hardball with Arsenal, who have a very small margin to negociate within their budget. With such a small budget, the club will likely have to wait for sales before making concrete steps towards a LB, Kieran Tierney’s name is often thrown around but there’s nothing concrete to support that in the media so far
None of these players are older than 25, showing that Arsenal is planning for the future from now on.
While there’s nothing concrete on the hardest part of the deals (agreeing a fee with the clubs), there is a sense that Arsenal finally have a plan for the first time in years, questions can be asked on whether the coach is the right one for it, or if some of the players should be moved on for an even bigger rebuild, but there is cause for cautious excitement ahead of the new season, not only because of the Adidas kits, but also because the club seems to have realised its situation, and a way to return to the top. It will obviously be a bumpy ride, with young players comes inconsistency, but they’re also the best way to reconnect the club with its fanbase.
The next 3 weeks will go a long way into telling whether or not that cautious excitement was misplaced, but if the club manages to pull off the signings they’re looking into, while giving a real chance to his youngsters, Arsenal’s future could quickly become a lot brighter.