Everybody knows that Arsenal need to clear out some of the old and usher in the new when in the next phase of their squad building. We all know who the underperformers are and where the blemishes are on the Arsenal salary bill. We all know that very few positions can consider themselves spared in the great Gunners overhaul (!) and it’s public knowledge that the club’s financial means to undertake this refurbishment are limited.
Having already lost valuable players on free transfers, Arsenal’s current high earners are almost all north of 30 years old with little resale value. Per Ned Flanders, it’s a dilly of a pickle. The club have very publicly placed an emphasis on promoting academy talent into the team with the appointment of Freddie Ljungberg into the first team set-up.
We probably all have an idea where Arsenal are weak, in terms of depth and quality. Arsecast episode 528 touched on the difficulty of recruiting players when your playing style is tabula rasa. So instead of making a dispassionate list of the positions where Arsenal could do with a facelift (I try not to exceed 1,500 words in these columns afterall), I’ve decided to look at the profile of players Arsenal need to fix this squad.
MORE RISK TAKERS IN ATTACK
According to whoscored, Arsenal finished 10th in the Premier League last season for shots on goal. They were 12th in the league when it came to dribbles per game. The Gunners need more players in attacking positions that stress defenders. I am not suggesting that Arsenal adopt a shoot on sight policy, or that players randomly try to beat three players on their lonesome in each attack.
But football has become so choreographed at the highest level that unstructured acts like dribbling and shots on goal have risen in currency. This is especially true in an era where the high press reigns supreme. Alexis Sanchez’s virtuoso acts might not have been to everyone’s tastes, but they were very valuable. He panicked defences and pulled them out of position, even if that meant panicking his own strikers and pulling them out of position on occasion.
Arsenal need to either recruit or develop players that can cause the opposition conniptions either by taking them on, or through a willingness to test their goalkeeper. After Lacazette and Aubameyang, the top scorers list from last season makes for fist gnawing reading; Mkhitayran 6, Özil 5, Ramsey 4, Iwobi 3- and one of those has left. The Gunners need to be far less predictable in their attacking intent.
UPGRADE THE ATHLETIC PROFILE OF THE TEAM
One of Arsenal’s foremost defensive issues is, in my view, the lack of athleticism through the spine of the team. Aaron Ramsey’s departure only exacerbates that issue. The team struggles to resist the press and cannot recover into space when opponents force transitions and turnovers. Part of this problem exists in the back line, where post-achilles tendon rupture Laurent Koscielny is 34 in September and, towards the end of last season, was struggling to jog.
Nacho Monreal is 33 and though still a competent defender, his legs are beginning to fade. Nowadays Emery has to hide him as the left-sided centre-half in a back three, where he would probably look better if Sead Kolasinac weren’t ahead of him. Kolasinac’s passing is about as accurate as a stopped watch. He turns the ball over often and he isn’t exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed when it comes to running backwards and retrieving it.
Then there’s Shkodran Mustafi whose body isn’t much of an issue. Unfortunately, his brain is. If your defence is a bit slow in some places and a bit error prone in others, sitting Granit Xhaka in front of them isn’t the most effective of ointments. When the player sitting in front of Granit Xhaka is Mesut Özil, well, your team isn’t exactly going to win any sprint relay races any time soon.
The addition of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi is an encouraging start to rebuilding Arsenal’s engine room, in my view, even if both players faded a little last season. It is crucially important that Arsenal have more players of this physical profile in their team. Some sprightlier legs will go a long, long way to improving the squad. The club doesn’t have the money for top tier replacements, but they can at least balance the roster and focus on becoming more than the sum of their parts.
BRING THE AVERAGE AGE DOWN
Arsenal is quite an old squad now and it needs refreshing. Refreshing the age profile should also have the added benefit of increasing the athletic capability of the team. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about filling out squad roles with players from the academy which, even if you’re not a little strapped for cash, is a sensible strategy.
Alex Ferguson is celebrated for his adoption of ‘The Golden Generation’ at Manchester United. That, I think, was a once in a lifetime occurrence. Where he deserves even more credit is for his use of the generation that followed- John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher weren’t world beaters, but they assumed valuable, multi-functional squad roles.
It is not just internal talent, however, where the Gunners can inject more youth into the team. Their recruitment should also focus on a buy low sell high policy. This is what Liverpool have done with great success and, in Wenger’s most successful years, Arsenal were the kings of getting bang for their buck. They polished players like Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, sold them at great profit and used the readies to buy other talent.
That is the reality of where Arsenal are in the food chain and they need to re-learn this instinct. If they do, their bank balance will start to look healthier and their reputation will begin to heal in the market place. If younger players believe that Arsenal is a club where they can develop, they will be more likely to choose N5.
Once you earn a reputation as a developer, it becomes part of your identity and once it is inculcated into your brand, you can stick a surcharge on the talent that you trade higher in the food chain. Ask Borussia Dortmund. All of these processes will take a little while and I am pretty sure that the powers that be have already identified all of these areas for improvement. Kicking that process off is the trickiest part.