Arsenal are a long way off from where they want to be, arguably some way off from they should be as well, each game passing increasing the overall malaise around the club in what is proving to be an awfully difficult season. Culprits have been designated of course, the bulk of the blame moving from Granit Xhaka to Unai Emery in the fall, to Raul Sanllehi until Arteta’s return to the club, and is now weighing heavily on the head coach and players such as David Luiz, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Özil. Yet the outcome remains the same, Arsenal are very much a broken team on various fronts, whether it is on or off the pitch.
The club didn’t pick up where it left off before the COVID outbreak with 3 straight wins but the performances weren’t too dissimilar to what the fans have grown accustomed to in recent years : a humbling loss at a big 6 ground and an away loss at a smaller team kicking the Gunners around, all while losing 3 important players to injury and another to suspension. This leaves Arsenal in 10th place with 8 games left, and chances of european football hanging by a thread, a fall from grace that is the consequence of years of mismanagement and that leaves a huge rebuilding job in the hands of novice coach Mikel Arteta.
A change of strategy
Arsenal’s squad is in a strange place, it is filled with either high-potential young players, stars past or close to ending their peak, and assets that they’re struggling to get rid of, such as Mustafi and Elneny. Apart from Xhaka, Bellerin, Pépé, Leno, none of Arsenal’s important players are in their peak years. This lackluster squad building stems from a brutal change of strategy in the Unai Emery reign, where the focus shifted from buying established players on high wages to buying young up-and-coming players with a potential solid resale value. The issue is that the aforementioned established players failed to deliver, players like Sokratis, Mkhitaryan and Lacazette were all expensive additions that failed to influence the trajectory of the club and that will bring in minimal money compared to what the club spent on them.
Alex Iwobi’s departure felt strange to a lot of Arsenal fans even though it showed a way they can climb up the football ladder: buy low and sell high. Iwobi was a valuable player but upwards of £30M was simply too good to turn down. Arsenal will need more of those, especially after almost a decade where Arsène Wenger was scared to sell played before it was way too late, losing millions in the process on players like Coquelin; Walcott and Giroud, that could have been moved on earlier and for more money.
On the other hand, another poor act of squad planning was letting Mkhitaryan leave to Roma only after Iwobi was sold, even though Arsenal were actively trying to get rid of the Armenian for most of the summer, he was Arsenal’s only wide midfielder left in the squad, hardly something the club can’t live without but the club lost a lot of end product in a single summer and it probably was wishful thinking to believe Pépé alone would compensate. Indeed, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, for all their flaws, contributed to 42 goals last season (18 goals, 24 assists), significant end product that wasn’t replaced, instead relying even more on Aubameyang and Lacazette to create as well as score.
Lucas Torreira might not the answer everyone longed for in the DM position but he’ll still command a decent fee if, or rather when, he gets his wish to return to Italy. The club shouldn’t be afraid of selling players, even players that could still be of use, very few players in the squad should be deemed unsellable, the club simply won’t get back on its feet without selling smart, the only way to produce significant money in a self-sustaining club.
Blow it all up?
Just like the Premier League did, Arsenal need their very own project restart, not for the next 8 games, maybe not even for next season, but for the coming years. With that in mind, how many players can Arsenal really rely on? Based on minutes played under Arteta, value, contract length and age, the answer is not many. Leno was one of them before his injury, Bellerin should be one of them once back at his best, Saliba is another one, Tierney, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Pépé, Martinelli and Saka are the other ones, a very small number of players. For the rest, it’s either that the jury is still out, which is the case for most of Arsenal’s youngsters, or that they can’t be relied upon for the long-term future of the club.
A lot is made of Rob Holding’s potential and his solid 2-month run in the team in 2018, but he’s also a player with 34 PL appearances in four seasons at the club, is it still worth persisting with a player that *might* turn out good based on a 10-game run last season? or should the club pull the trigger and gather a good profit for a player bought for cheap? Questions such as those can be asked for the majority of the squad, decisions will have to be made at some point, especially at CB where Arsenal have seven options under contract (Mustafi, Holding, Sokratis, Mavropanos, Chambers, Pablo Mari, Saliba) yet only Saliba is guaranteed a long-term future at Arsenal.
The same questions linger in attack with Aubameyang and Saka’s contract situation.
Saka is just 18, with a year left on his contract, and a string of very solid performances, his negotiating hand is awfully strong. He’s a player the club simply can’t afford to lose, especially not for a meager amount of money. His agent is known for engineering moves abroad for young English players, the risk is there but Arsenal have to be proactive before it’s too late, this season showed how hard it can be for young players in a tough situation, Reiss Nelson for instance, who struggled for form, fitness, and consistency. This grants even more credit to Saka for performing so well in different roles, whether it was in attack, at left-back, or even in midfield.
Aubameyang is 31, has a year left on his contract with big wages, the dilemma is whether to extend him for even bigger money, sell him on before it’s too late or bite the bullet and lose him on a free after one final season. His financial expectations will play a big part in the club’s decision, the club can’t run the risk of another Özil debacle with a player in his 30’s on huge wages that declines sharply and doesn’t want to leave.
A case can be made for selling one of him or Lacazette, if not both. The Frenchman’s stint at the club has mostly been underwhelming and the club might profit from recouping as much as they can from a club like Atletico, bringing in welcome money to rebuild the squad the way Arteta sees fit. The same logic applies for Aubameyang, as valuable as he is to the squad, he remains a 31-year old penalty box striker playing out wide, not simply to accommodate Lacazette, but because Arteta wants his striker involved in the build-up, something that Auba doesn’t do, Arsenal could simply blow it all up, reinvest and rebuild from scratch. They will probably play it safer but there will be tough decisions regardless for a squad in dire need of a revamp. The new project should and most likely will be based on youth, surrounded by a few experienced leaders, it’ll take time, some painful games as well but it’s a long way back to the top for the club now.
Getting worse before it gets better
Just like every long-term project, getting Arsenal back to the top will take time and require money, investment, patience, and quite a bit of luck, things that Arsenal have sorely missed this season. Chances are it’ll get worse than it currently is, a necessary step before it gets better. Short-termism failed, it’s time to replace it with something new, which is also why Mikel Arteta signed a long-term contract, unlike Unai Emery.
Looking at the long-term does mean running the risk of losing Aubameyang, easily the club ‘s best player. After all, at 31, there’s not a great appeal to staying at a club in a rebuilding phase, mentoring younger players who will be the ones reaping the rewards. On the other hand, the same logic could bring Saka closer to that fateful pen, he’s a player who would be a cornerstone of that new-look team and only at 20 or 21 years of age, an appealing perspective for a player coming through the ranks at Arsenal, part of what could be a golden generation with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe.
Arsenal lacks the squad but also an identity, something Mikel Arteta is trying to change, he’ll make mistakes along the way but given the right tools there’s every chance Arsenal will become the Champions League club their wage bill suggests they are. At this point, they’re a club drifting out of Europe while paying Champions League expenses off the pitch, and an easy team to break on the pitch.
Arsenal’s defense is poor on an individual level but the midfield and attack might be even more worrying. The trend started under Emery of producing very few high-quality chances has clung onto the Mikel Arteta era, the Gunners struggle to create chances and have to rely on their finishing ability, which was always going to fail to live up to last season’s records, where Arsenal had the best conversion rate in Premier League history, nearly 40%.
The attack will also benefit massively from improvements in midfield, Arsenal’s midfield carries little to no threat on goal since Aaron Ramsey left for Juventus and Özil’s output declined. Part of it is down to the fact that Arsenal’s current midfield has been built for Unai Emery, with midfielders that are either second strikers or forbidden to cross the halfway line, no in-between. Arsenal sorely miss creativity in central areas, a burden Özil’t cant shoulder on his own anymore, Arsenal need another player comfortable between the opposing lines in order to create more chances. Being better offensively will also warn off so-called weaker teams from committing more men forward. As of now, they know a punishment is unlikely hence why they can throw men forward on the break without hesitation.
Work is being made on the ball though, Arteta seems to be shifting towards a 4-3-3, with his right-back cutting inside in possession and his left centre midfielder pushing wide upfield to allow Aubameyang to get closer to the goal. Arsenal’s issues attacking-wise will probably be solved by creative additions and players getting used to the runs of their teammates in the new system.
Off the ball however, Arsenal’s midfield is very close to shambolic, Granit Xhaka being the only midfielder providing a bit of structure, and he doesn’t come without his own set of flaws. The rest of Arsenal’s midfield options are either too raw, too one-dimensional or not good enough on a technical level. Bukayo Saka played admirably well in midfield against Brighton but the overall midfield shape in transition remains a problem, the Arsenal midfield gets sliced open as if it doesn’t exist.
There are no easy fixes to that, Arsenal will need to dip into the transfer market to fix those issues, as they don’t have loads of talent coming through like in attack. Willock is only 20 but so far he’s a liability in possession, yet not creative enough to play further upfield even though he’s good in front of goal. The pursuit of Thomas Partey makes a lot of sense in that regard, as he is a very quick midfielder, way quicker than a Xhaka, while being better on the ball than a Lucas Torreira. His ability to break through lines with the ball at his feet would also be a massive boost, as Ceballos only does it from deep. The other fix is simply via time and coaching, Matteo Guendouzi has all the tools to thrive in midfield for Arsenal, he just needs positional awareness and discipline off the ball.
Great things take time, it has been made abundantly clear that the Mikel Arteta appointment was one for the future, not a short-term fix to steady the ship. Even though the ship in question is rocked by pretty heavy waves at the moment, there are causes for cautious optimism for the future, if and only if Mikel Arteta is backed by Raul Sanllehi and the Kroenkes. Champions League football might be as far away as it has ever been for Arsenal, there are no shortcuts on the way back, Arsenal simply don’t have to funds to play short-term anymore.
It might not be the case just yet but It’ll be Saka, Saliba and Martinelli’s Arsenal soon enough.