Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Fat of the Land

I think the harsh reality is that Arsenal’s squad next season is not going to look much different to how it looked last season. I cannot see Arsenal shifting big earners like Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mhkitaryan. I wouldn’t even put any money on Shkodran Mustafi leaving the club this summer.

Kieran Tierney would be a welcome addition given Arsenal’s need to refresh at left-back and I think the Gunners will add a wide forward- whether that be Wilfried Zaha or a lower budget option. Some of the fat around the edges of the squad could be trimmed, if the club can find someone to take Carl Jenkinson’s wages and maybe a late sale of Mohamed Elneny once the African Nations has concluded.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece looking at the absorption of academy talent into the first team. I imagine some of the vacated squad roles will be filled by the likes of Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Emi Martinez and maybe even Gabriel Martinelli as the Gunners count the loss of Cech and Welbeck too. (Ramsey will surely need replacing externally).

The signing of Martinelli and the pursuit of William Saliba demonstrate a commitment to youth in the transfer market as well as the academy. After all, youth tends to be economical and Arsenal need to retrain themselves to buy potential and gamble on large upsides (which is a nice way of saying ‘gamble on a large sell-on fee when a club higher in the food chain comes a knocking’).

Though many Arsenal fans have accepted that the club is in a sell to renew / project youth mk. II phase, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be exciting. Gambling on fourth tier Brazilian teenagers and loaning 18 year old centre halves back to the selling club is all part of the deal when you are mining for ‘before they were famous’ types.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think Arsenal’s starting line-up at Newcastle on August 11th will look unfamiliar. At the risk of sounding like an Instagram influencer, change is going to have to come from within. The first thing to say is that, as browbeaten as we all feel about the club’s prospects at the moment, the team only finished one point shy of Champions League qualification last season.

Arsenal don’t necessarily need to see a transformative improvement to achieve their primary goal. In fact, they still stand an excellent chance with little to no improvement at all- a lucky deflection here, a mini-crisis at one of their competitors there could be enough to close the gap. (I realise that the same is true in reverse too).

So where can Arsenal make marginal gains with what they have? More emphatic squad rotation in the group stages of the Europa League and the League Cup would be a good start- but I covered that in the academy talent article, so I’ll not elaborate on that further. Emery knows his squad a little better now and needs to be able to accentuate its strengths more regularly.

I think midfield is a good place to start. I would like to see Emery lean into the Guendouzi and Torreira partnership in midfield. Developing player potential is not a project entirely reliant on blooding academy talent or young players brought in from outside. It is about identifying and nurturing existing potential too.

Guendouzi has bags of it in my opinion- as this piece lays out very nicely. Of course, he has some rough edges, but that is more bothersome for Arsenal fans due to familiarity. Any young talent Emery introduces into the team is going to have rough edges. This time next year you will probably be sick of Reiss Nelson’s bones and blisters too.

There was not a lot of joy to be extracted from Manchester City’s regulation victory over Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium in February. But Guendouzi and Torreira were partnered in midfield that day and I think I saw the future of the engine room. At Arsenal, I think we have become very used to the idea of midfield specialists from Arsene Wenger’s time in charge.

We are accustomed to Gilberto Silva, or Mathieu Flamini or Francis Coquelin being the defensive midfielder. We know that Granit Xhaka and Emmanuel Petit are deep lying playmakers, we recognise Ramsey as an attacking midfielder. I think we struggle to appraise Guendouzi because he is not really any of these things.

He is an all-rounder, which is a far more modern realisation of a Premier League midfielder. Look at Liverpool, who constantly interchange between Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, Fabinho, Keita and even Lallana. All of these players are sprinters. So too are Guendouzi and Torreira, that is what is required in modern Premier League midfields.

Tottenham have phased Eric Dier out of their midfield to make way for Moussa Sissoko, who has been repurposed as an all-action central midfield player. Guendouzi and Torreira move themselves and the ball quickly and can do a bit of everything that you want in a modern midfield pivot. Granit Xhaka is a good player with useful qualities- even if his tendency for stupid moments cancels out some of his effectiveness.

The problem is one of speed. He is too slow off the ball and though his progressive passing is excellent, it takes him too long to collect and distribute. Guendouzi and Torreira are far quicker at receiving the ball in space and moving it on quickly and progressively. It’s not a magic bullet that will fire Arsenal to the title or anything close, but I would make developing this partnership a priority for next season- fitness of both players permitting.

I think a little too much stock was placed in the injury to Rob Holding in December. Holding came into the team and performed well last season, not necessarily because he is the world class defender ready to transform Arsenal’s fortunes. It’s just that he was slightly better suited to what the manager wanted the team to do.

I am not suggesting his return will blast away all of the team’s cobwebs. Rather, his form last season is a good reminder that sometimes it doesn’t take a world class player to make a difference, just having a more balanced team can do that. The club are not in a position to make transformative signings, so they have to find little pockets of improvement like this next season.

I have a theory that Alex Iwobi could easily be reimagined as the widest player in a midfield three if Arsenal wanted to move to a 4-3-3. I think Ainsley Maitland-Niles could play a similar role, maybe on the right of the midfield. Neither of these changes are at the elite level and they won’t suddenly turn the team into title contenders, but that’s an unrealistic ambition at this stage anyway.

This is all back of a cigarette packet analysis on my part anyway. Unai Emery does not have the funds to transform this ugly duckling squad into a swan and it’s unlikely that he will be able to generate the funds organically either. He is going to have to chip away at the coalface over pre-season and at London Colney and find some renewable energy.

We are told that Emery is a pure coach and this coming season we will find out how true that is. The squad needs a fire lighting underneath it and Emery has only sticks and leaves with which to do it. Arsenal are living off the fat of the land.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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