Thursday, July 18, 2024

Project mayhem

In my view, Arsenal have under delivered compared to the talent available to them this season- which is not to say that I think this is an absolutely stellar cast of players but I think they are better than the 10th place arse groove they have carved out for themselves in the Premier League table. I would just urge anyone to revisit their pre-season predictions and I doubt many Arsenal fans would have predicted midtable anonymity in the afterglow of August’s FA Cup victory.

It is befitting of a surreal season that Arsenal currently stands a superior chance of qualifying for the Champions League than they do next season’s Europa League. I do think it is more difficult to assess Arteta’s tenure than the league table suggests- there was probably always a sense of Arsenal needing to take a step backwards to go forwards.

I must admit that I didn’t think it would be a step this far backwards- the question is whether you think Arteta can take the club forward and significantly so. There have been tangible signs of improvement since Christmas but when we talk about “improvement” on what the team were serving up before Christmas, we are setting the bar at about tripwire height.

Where you stand on Arteta calls upon your powers of foresight, not least because Arteta has no history as a manager for us to call upon. There are no fossils from his past that can act as an indicator for his future competence. If Jose Mourinho starts getting a bit snippy in press conferences, you know where the situation is headed. With Arteta we have only theory and guesswork.

Really, the absolute crux of the current job of Arsenal manager is to handle the imminently required rebuild of the squad. Last week, I detailed just how much work there is for the manager and the Technical Director to do. On an executive level, Arsenal are very young (which isn’t necessarily a criticism).

CEO Vinai Venkatesham is 40, Technical Director Edu Gaspar is 42, Mikel Arteta is 39 and Academy lead Per Mertesacker is 36. They are not all totally inexperienced, granted, but none have been entrusted with a wholesale rebuild of a club like Arsenal before. (Mertesacker is only tangentially involved in that process, in fairness). We are about to see what they are made of.

I have to say, I don’t think the signs are hugely encouraging to this point. I think Vinai showed some inexperience with the hasty decision to “promote” Arteta from Head Coach to Manager last summer. I think he allowed the good vibes of the FA Cup victory to cloud his thinking and I can’t really understand why this was seen as such a necessary move.

Arsenal have to make many big decisions on players this summer and to tout others in a depressed market. Some of the decisions taken by Edu and Arteta to this point make me nervous. Firstly, the decision to award Pierre Emerick Aubameyang a huge new contract but then to behave so reluctantly when it comes to fielding a team that plays to his strengths.

On the face of it, deciding not to renew the terms of someone like Aubameyang is a big, scary decision- the type of which the previous administration ducked time and again, placing the club into dire straits squad building wise. The decision to pour big money into 29-year olds Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Özil, spending £100m on a pair of strikers that cannot play together, while also refusing to cash in on the likes of Sanchez and Ramsey placed Arsenal into a fiscal and footballing logjam.

However, a decision on a player like Aubameyang is actually a really clear and obvious one. Once you start discussing salaries of that size, the objective ought to be very clear. In salary terms, that is “we will build this whole team around you” money. If you do not think the player is worthy of that status, you do not put the money down. You don’t make a 31-year old your highest paid player and then ask him to play various roles in various systems, some of which play to his strengths more than others.

It’s actually much more difficult to decide on contracts for players like Xhaka, Leno and Bellerin, as I set out last week. When it comes to your absolute top earners, you either put up or shut up. That Arsenal elected for a halfway house of renewing the contract without a clear plan of what to do with the player bodes poorly for the summer.

Ken Early referred to that decision as one made out of “status anxiety” on a recent episode of the Second Captains podcast and that’s especially worrying given the amount of times that Arsenal have made that mistake recently. Likewise, the decision to take Willian on a free transfer this summer represents a huge mark against Arteta and Edu.

Willian started the season almost exclusively on the right flank. Having witnessed the damage of purchasing a pair of expensive strikers who cannot play in the same team, Arsenal elected to make exactly the same error by signing Willian up when they already had record signing Nicolas Pepe in the same position. That’s four of Arsenal’s highest paid players playing in two positions, more or less.

The Brazilian has played more on the left recently and, in fairness, Arteta pointed to the player’s versatility as one of the main attractions in signing him. However, even now he is trusted only fitfully. That he too has been asked to play different roles in different systems illustrates pretty clearly that Arteta and Edu didn’t have a clear plan for a player they were willing to award a hefty contract.

That’s two of Arsenal’s most highly paid players and there was either no concrete plan for how to use them, or else the plan collapsed almost instantly. It doesn’t augur well. Add to that the decision to offer Shkodran Mustafi a new contract in October which the player rejected. I will just let that one rattle around in your cranium for a few seconds.

The charge sheet grows larger when you look at the rushed, ill-considered signing of Rúnar Rúnarsson because the goalkeeping coach knew his phone number. One can’t fail to be concerned by the handling of William Saliba too. Then there is Eddie Nketiah, whose value peaked nicely in the winter when he finished top scorer for the club in the Europa League group stages.

We are told there was interest from clubs in January before Arteta insisted the player, who has 18 months on his deal, was absolutely not for sale. He has not kicked a ball in anger for the first team ever since. This is a startlingly poor decision and now the player is losing value ahead of a likely summer sale having added nothing to the team in the meantime.

It is even more concerning that Edu did not push back on the manager’s faulty logic in this scenario. That suggests a reluctance to provide healthy challenge on his part. Admittedly, I don’t have all of the details there, so there may be something I am missing. I also realise I am being pithy and only highlighting the bad examples, there has been good work too (getting Ødegaard on loan, for example. Gabriel and Mari are good additions and offer a good analogue to one another).

However, Aubameyang, Willian, Mustafi, Nketiah and Rúnarsson is quite the charge sheet for eight months’ worth of work. There are caveats of course, with covid impacting the market and a to do list for Edu and Arteta longer than a Leonard Cohen song. However, neither of those factors are disappearing this summer and, frankly, both parties are going to have to demonstrate that they are quick learners because this squad rebuild will determine Arsenal’s medium-term future. Scared yet?

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