Project Restart

Following the weekend defeat to Brighton, I made a mental list of the players that I think will definitely not be at Arsenal come January 2022. The age and contract profile of the current squad means it will turn over naturally very soon; but I hadn’t quite appreciated how many players that constituted.

By my reckoning, Mohamed Elneny, Sokratis, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Dani Ceballos, Alex Lacazette, Mesut Ozil, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and David Luiz certainly won’t be at the club for the 2022-23 season. In the ‘maybe’ pile I have Lucas Torreira, Rob Holding, Shkodran Mustafi (who, I think, might actually bag himself a new contract), Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac. You might even include Nicolas Pepe on that list.

A couple of years ago, Arsenal opted for a short-term strategy of buying late prime players in order to quickly get back into the Champions League and it has been a miserable failure. Not only has a hotch potch of a squad not been able to achieve that aim, the club have continually left big money on the table when their biggest assets have departed.

Arsenal didn’t make a single dime from the sales of Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, who left before their 30th birthdays. The eventual departure of Ozil won’t make Arsenal a penny either. The club is less guilty about Santi Cazorla’s contract running down, but four of those five players have been among Arsenal’s most influential of the last decade and their departures will not earn the club a solitary penny.

The decision to let Welbeck’s contract run down while the likes of Danny Ings and Christian Benteke were trading for big bucks is little short of embarrassing. Failure to get back into the Champions League has certainly hurt the club’s financial potential but so too has handing out silly contracts and allowing good players to leave for nothing.

Arsenal reported a £27m loss in their most recent accounts, in 2017-18 they turned a profit thanks solely to the sale of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain to Liverpool. The club made the reluctant decision to sell Alex Iwobi to Everton to finance the Pepe deal last summer. A lack of Champions League football becomes less of an issue when you sell well. I am certain that Mikel Arteta was appointed with a license to “rip it up and start again.”

Everything he has said so far suggests that he is willing to carry out that task. However, the clear out is the easy part. The contracts of Ozil, Aubameyang, Mustafi, Sokratis, Ceballos and Luiz will force those issues- Lacazette only has two years to run on his deal and an extension doesn’t seem like a mutually desirable outcome.

The problem for Arsenal is manifold. Firstly, the contract and age situations of the aforementioned players means the club can expect to receive a pittance with which to rebuild. In a pre-covid world, the sales of Aubameyang and Lacazette might have gone a long way to financing a new broom.

I guess one positive of the current situation is that Aubameyang might decide that he can’t even countenance sticking around for another year and running down his deal and leaving on a free! Arsenal won’t expect the departures of some of those players to generate much cash, which means they are probably going to have to sell more marketable players (one or more of Bellerin, Guendouzi, Torreira).

The British premium might rescue them a little if they decide to move Holding, Chambers and Maitland-Niles on. They will still be dealing in a relative shoestring to replace the outgoing squad members. One of the big issues is that it’s the spine of the team that will require the most attention and those players don’t come cheap.

The squad has a collection of ‘exterior’ players- Saka, Martinelli, Nelson, even Pepe. Arsenal would probably be happy enough with Bellerin and Tierney as full-backs. Centre-half, central midfield and centre-forward are all bigger issues. Likewise, someone who can link midfield to attack in the absence of Mesut Ozil is an issue Mikel Arteta is already toiling with in the first two games since the restart.

Replacing the goals of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang will also be a tough ask. This is where Arsenal will have to be smart in their talent identification and prioritise balance. For instance, Saka, Martinelli and Pepe might prove to be a nicely balanced front three- I’m not saying I definitely think it will, but the club is certainly in “better than the sum of its parts” territory.

Knocking the house down is the easy part for Arsenal. Even with no plan of action, key contracts mean it will just crumble by itself soon enough. Given the team’s current form very few supporters wouldn’t get behind a scorched earth policy. How it is put back together again is how Arteta and those above him will ultimately be judged.

Sanllehi, Edu and co can just about preach plausible deniability on the Ramsey, Sanchez and Ozil situations. Those were situations that were partially inherited. Ivan Gazidis and Sven Mislintat were in place when decisions were taken to bring Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan into the club and to award Ozil a bumper new contract.

How this squad is ultimately deconstructed and reconstructed is all on them. That obviously goes for Arteta too, but he ought to consider this a challenge. Ultimately, if Arsenal were in a healthy situation with a solid recent history of good decisions, he wouldn’t have been given the job in the first place. Crisis is the midwife to opportunity.

This is his opportunity to try to mould the squad in his own image, so while he has walked into a bin fire at Arsenal, most of the debris will be swept away soon enough. The reality is that we’re probably going to have to be patient over the next 12-18 months as it is slowly rebuilt and Arteta will need the executives above him to bring their absolute A-game so that Arsenal can identify and fund fresh talent. Feel better now?

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