In a whirlwind 40 day schedule, Arsenal have played 12 matches since football resumed after its pandemic-induced break. Upon reflection, Mikel Arteta’s side have largely picked up where they left off prior to lockdown. There have been continued signs of hope, with some hugely impressive performances culminating in an FA cup final on Saturday, and a chance to end an otherwise dreadful season on a high. Conversely, other performances have simply further highlighted the glaring weaknesses in the squad.
Worryingly, with Arteta attempting to cultivate a new winning culture, it has been apparent in some of the displays that this current group are incapable of retaining focus on a consistent basis. Arsenal would have been comfortably in 5th place if it wasn’t for sloppy defeats to Brighton, Spurs and Aston Villa. By contrast Arteta’s former team Manchester City, with absolutely nothing to play for, have won SIX games by 4+ goals to 0 since the restart.
After a failed attempt to make the switch to a 4-3-3 formation, Arteta found some success by switching to a 3-4-3. And while no Arteta set-up is as rigid as it appears on paper, it is undeniable that this system plays to the strengths of our squad, with the added defensive stability crucial at Wembley in the semi-final against City. However, it is obvious that Arteta has utilised a 3 at the back formation out of necessity rather than choice.
As well as the added defensive stability, it is clear that one of the main reasons for this tactical switch is the stark lack of attacking midfielders available to the young coach. With Mesut Ozil being frozen out (for whatever reason, I’m sick of hearing about him) and Dani Ceballos growing into a deeper role, Arteta doesn’t really have any attacking midfielders to play number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 or in a 4-3-3. This is somewhat unusual for a generation of Arsenal fans who up until 2018 had only known one manager, in Arsene Wenger, that always seemed to have a stockpile of creative players. Arteta spoke about this in a recent Sky Sports interview:
“Look at the players that we had in the past at this club in those positions. You go back to (Santi) Cazorla, to (Tomas) Rosicky, to (Andrey) Arshavin when he played there, to (Aaron) Ramsey when he played there, to (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan when he came in. Even Jack Wilshere used to play in those pockets all the time. That is a lot of players who are now not here. We have to renew that cycle, because if not, those kind of players won’t be there for us anymore. They are a big part of what any squad needs.”
This lack of creativity has been a major factor in Arsenal having their worst league season in a quarter of a century, and it is clearly evident in some of the key end of season stats. This season, Arsenal rank 16th in the Premier League for shots, below relegated Norwich. The expected goals data puts them only three places higher, sandwiched between Watford and Brighton.
Arsenal have developed a method of playing against the bigger teams which worked to perfection against Manchester City in the semi-final. It was a performance in which tenacity and concentration were applied in the defensive phases, and a new found confidence and commitment to playing out from the back was complimented by clinical finishing at the other end. However, next season Arsenal must find a way to win the games we are expected to win. Too often this season Arsenal have found themselves lost for ideas against teams below us in the league who set up with a deep defensive block. Arteta knows all to well that to be successful in the Premier League you must find a way to break down teams with a low block.
“I have experienced that for four years at Manchester City, working out the best ways to break that down. It is one of the challenges we are facing and one of the areas where we have to improve, for sure.”
In order to become better at beating the teams below us in the league, addressing their lack of creativity must be at the forefront of Arsenal’s transfer market plans. Arteta himself is well aware of the need to improve the creativity in the squad saying:
“That is one of the areas we can improve, but also, how important those players are will depend on the way we are going to attack, because some different teams do it differently. Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.”
With this in mind, I thought I would take a look at some of the options that Raul Sanllehi, Edu and Arteta are probably considering as players who could potentially fill Arsenal’s creative void:
Financially prudent options:
Emile Smith Rowe:
(Before the restart I made a full Article on Smith Rowe, which you can find here )
Emile Smith Rowe is a young player with all the raw ingredients that our current midfield options lack. He plays the game at pace, whether it’s through sharp passes forward or driving runs he is effective at getting the ball into dangerous areas and always seeks to play forward. He also has an eye for a goal and best of all he’s already an Arsenal player having been at the club since the age of 10. After a injury plagued spell at RB Liepzig the year before, he has spent the second half of this season on a really successful loan at Huddersfield, helping to keep a struggling side in the Championship. Having just turned 20, with relatively little top flight experience, it would be naive to think he’s ready to shoulder all our creative needs, but he is certainly ready to contribute and if we can sign another option it would be a great opportunity to integrate him into the side. Mikel Arteta has clearly been impressed:
“He’s a player with very specific qualities to play in those pockets in that position as an attacking midfielder. I am excited to work with him. I have been talking with him and I have followed him during his spell on loan. I think he’s someone who can be pretty impressive. I’m pleased by what I’ve seen from him. He needed that exposure and he looks more mature now. I think he will be in a much better place when he comes back in pre-season.”
After a promising start, Norwich have had a terrible season and were relegated a few weeks before the season ended with the team 13 points adrift at the bottom of the table. Given how bad they’ve been, it makes Emi Buendia’s season all the more impressive. A prolific chance creator and proficient ball carrier, Buendia is perfectly at home operating in the pockets that Arteta has been referring to. Buendía is a real diamond in the rough this summer, and while the step up from a struggling Norwich side would be a big one, Arsenal should definitely consider picking up a player with some Premier League experience. He could also potentially be quite cheap as relegated teams are often desperate to raise funds. These stats from Squawka show just how impressive Buendia has been:
Szoboszlai has been in tremendous form this season and the 19-year-old who is already a Hungarian international has quite a distinctive skillset. The youngster typically starts on the left-hand side of RB Salzburg’s midfield as an advanced left-midfielder supporting two main strikers.
In addition, Szoboszlai is a superb technician, and at 6ft 1 is athletic enough for a smoother transition to the rigours of the Premier League. Of course playing in a supremely-talented Salzburg side perhaps skews his statistics, but nevertheless they are very impressive for such a young player. With 9 goals and 14 assists in 27 Austrian league games this season his creative talent is evident: could he be the next big star to emerge from the Red Bull talent machine?
More expensive options:
Barcelona are actively looking for a new club to take the Brazilian after his loan with Bayern Munich, and the Arsenal executive team have a very cozy relationship with his representative Kia Joorabchian. The issue, of course, would be meeting Coutinho and Barcelona’s considerable demands. Even if it was another loan, one would think the figures involved would be astronomical: 250k per week in wages and I’m sure some hefty fees to our good friend Kia. If we somehow managed to shift Ozil, I’m confident this is an option that would tempt Arteta because he clearly wants quality players, but with 350k per week already being wasted on an attacking midfielder, I can’t see this as being a sensible decision. You never know with how we’ve been run recently though.
Last week, all the creative issues I’ve discussed where on show as Arsenal, despite dominating possession, became the first team to not register a shot on target against Aston Villa this season. In what turned out to be a huge three points for Villa, their talisman, Jack Grealish, demonstrated everything Arsenal are missing. He drove the team forward almost single handedly at times, showing incredible athleticism and ball carrying ability. There is end product too, and in that same graphic from Squawka it’s clear what a remarkable impact Grealish has had on his boyhood clubs push for survival. He’s second to only Kevin De Bruyne for chances created in the Premier League, for a team who only just survived relegation on the last day. He also has a truly remarkable record for relieving his team from pressure drawing the most fouls in the division by a huge margin. Unfortunately, by giving Villa a crucial three points Arsenal have probably ruled out any slim chance we had of being able to lure Grealish. Having survived, Villa will be able to demand a fee representing his true value, and we all know there exists a premium for English players, especially ones who are this talented. Don’t hold much hope for this one.
Houssem Aouar has emerged as one of the stars of a Lyon side packed with young talent — so much so that it’s difficult to imagine Arsenal luring him to London, especially without the carrot of European football. Interestingly, during his time at Manchester City, Arteta watched Aouar play on a number of occasions, and his former boss Pep Guardiola was very impressed by the 21 year-old Frenchman:
“Houssem Aouar is a very good player. He is incredible. We talk a lot about (Tanguy) Ndombele, but Aouar is also excellent. He’s always very calm with the ball at his feet, with an excellent technical quality.”
An interesting alternative:
Donny van de Beek:
An interesting alternative is a player who Arsenal (shockingly) haven’t really been linked with yet. Donny van de Beek truly burst onto the European scene as part of the electrifying Ajax side that reached the Champions League semi-finals last season. He was one of their standout young stars alongside Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong – now at Juventus and Barca respectively. He scored three goals on Ajax’s incredible run to the last four, including the only goal of the game against Tottenham in the first leg of their semi-final tie. He scored a further nine in the Eredivisie as Ajax won their first league title in five years with 10 assists. Despite the Eredivsie being voided because of the pandemic, van de Beek grabbed eight goals with six assists in 23 appearances this season.
With incredible versatility, van de Beek can operate in a central or attacking role and has been described as the classic box-to-box midfielder. And crucially, after their hugely successful season last year, Ajax Chief Executive Edwin van der Sar made a verbal agreement with van de Beek that if he, along with Ziyech and Onana, stayed for one more year they would be allowed to leave this summer. So we know he is available, but with heavy links to Real Madrid in the past perhaps he would be unattainable for Arsenal. However, it is worth at least monitoring his situation because he is certainly set to leave Ajax this summer.
It is abundantly clear that Mikel Arteta wants to address Arsenal’s creative issues and, as I’ve set out, there are a number of interesting options that the decision makers should be considering. Clearly however, which option they take will be heavily dictated by the post-pandemic financial situation and with the club currently bartering with Athletic Madrid for the more defensive minded Thomas Partey, it is unclear what funds will be available to sign a more creative force. Nonetheless there are some interesting options available and I’d be keen to hear your opinions on the choices I’ve discussed and whether anyone else deserves consideration?