Today is October 20th, and it’s the deadline for clubs to submit their 25 man Premier League squads. I’m sure you all know the rules, but just in case:
Each squad contains no more than 17 players who do not fulfil the “Home Grown Player” (HGP) criteria.
The rest of the squad, up to a total of 25 players, must be “Home Grown”.
We can also use U21 players above and beyond the 25 man list. Obviously there’s an issue at Arsenal as we have too many non-home grown players to include them all, this was evident in our Europa League squad which saw Mesut Ozil and Sokratis excluded. It feels very much like both of them could be the ones to miss out in Premier League terms when we make our submission.
I don’t know what’s left to say about Ozil, I wrote about his situation here after the Europa League squad announcement, and I don’t know if there’s anything I can really add to it. Sokratis, a model pro by all accounts, just doesn’t seem to be a player that Mikel Arteta wants to use. His appearances became more and more infrequent as time went on, and after lockdown he was consigned to the bench. He hasn’t featured at all this season.
And yet, in the most Arsenal thing of all time, we have more central defenders on our books for one season than I can ever remember, and we still have problems to deal with. As it stands ahead of Thursday’s Europa League tie with Rapid Vienna, we only have Gabriel and David Luiz fit. Rob Holding tweaked his hamstring in the warm-up before the City game, and even if his withdrawal was precautionary, it seems unlikely he’ll be available. The bare minimum for an actual strain is typically around three weeks.
Calum Chambers, and Shkodran Mustafi are coming back from long-term injuries, as is Pablo Mari – remember him? Sokratis can’t play in Europe, nor can William Saliba who was also left out of that squad. It leaves the manager with something of pickle, because while Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac can add depth when we use a back three, it still leaves us short of options when it comes to fielding a back four. With Premier League points far more important than Europa League ones, we don’t really have the ability to rotate for Thursday in this area ahead of what’s going to be a tough game against Leicester on Sunday.
It’s incredible to think we’ve got eight centre-halves on the books, plus Tierney and Kolasinac, and we’re still struggling for numbers. It was part of the discussion on the Arsecast Extra yesterday too – who is the ideal partner for Gabriel if you want to shift towards using a back four? It’s not easy to pick, is it? You could very easily make the case that this is a problem which needs to be solved in the transfer market, but that’s not an option until January at the earliest, and I don’t really expect us to do much when that window opens anyway.
It’s interesting to think there were such high hopes that William Saliba would be that player – and look, let’s keep fingers crossed that in time he might well be. I was always a touch worried that the expectations around him were too high, that people thought a 19 year old was going to come in after fewer than 40 professional games and be instantly Premier League ready. That was unrealistic, but I have to admit I didn’t expect him to be quite so far from first team action.
His omission from the Europa League squad is a bit of a worry. Perhaps part of it is because we thought he was going to go on loan, and he was reportedly very close to returning to Saint-Etienne on transfer deadline day but the paperwork wasn’t completed in time. Neither side is admitting culpability, but obviously something didn’t get done, and now we have a player who can’t play in a tournament which would have been ideal for him. With the greatest respect to Rapid Vienna, Dundalk and Molde, these would have been the kind of games to blood Saliba in, and to give him playing time.
He doesn’t have to be registered as part of our 25 man squad to be eligible for the Premier League as he’s under 21, so he will be available for selection if needed, or if Mikel Arteta is willing to give him the chance. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think they have some concerns about his readiness if they were going to send him out on loan. The manager has been quite open about Saliba, more than once playing down expectations and reminding people of his youth, inexperience and the injury problems he had before his arrival in North London.
Ordinarily, being cautious or circumspect over a 19 year old central defender wouldn’t be much of a story. Saliba is younger than Zech Medley, for example, and Northern Ireland international Daniel Ballard – who are on loan from us in League One at Gillingham and Blackpool respectively. He is the same age as Harry Clarke, who went to Oldham Athletic in League Two last week. Centre-half is a difficult, unforgiving position, and learning your trade in a way which doesn’t expose or destroy you as a young player isn’t always easy. When is the last time Arsenal actually produced a centre-half from the Academy who became a first team regular?!
So, if they are taking their time with Saliba, almost being protective of him, that’s probably the sensible thing to do. The thing is though, none of the players I mentioned above have the price-tag issue hanging over them. When a club pays £28m for an 18 year old defender, it generates excitement and expectation. When a club like Arsenal – usually quite risk-averse in the transfer market – pays that kind of fee, it makes you sit up and take notice. You think this must be a very special talent, so his lack of involvement then becomes a major talking point.
Let’s be clear: Saliba could very well be a special talent, and hopefully will become a mainstay in our defence for years to come, but right now he seems some distance from that. Also, what we paid for him is not his fault, but it is something which he has to deal with as people associate cost with quality. It’s slightly unfair as it was nothing to do with him, but it’s something players have to contend with. If he’d arrived as a £2m signing, like Mavropanos, we wouldn’t really be even talking about his absence because he’s still so young.
Maybe that £28m will look like a bargain in years to come, but – again not placing any blame on the player himself – what’s happening with Saliba this season does make you think about that kind of outlay. Was it the best use of our money at that time? Are Arsenal the kind of club that could afford to spend £28m on a player who wouldn’t play for a full season, and who we were willing to loan out for another one? Even aside from the centre-half situation we find ourselves in now, it’s definitely open to question.
Anyway, fingers crossed hard work on the training ground with the manager and the coaches will help develop Saliba. Everyone who has watched him has acknowledged the potential, and we’re basically just an injury or suspension away from him actually being needed, so let’s see what happens with him, and the centre of our defence in the weeks ahead.
That’s your lot for today, till tomorrow.