Sunday, December 10, 2023

Kicking the can down the road

As we all know by now, Arsenal have quite a lot of work to do this summer. The more reasonable among us accept that there isn’t the time, the bandwidth or the cash money to do everything that needs to be done in one transfer window. Arsenal’s squad will not be complete come September, there will still be some holes in the bucket and there might be some players still wearing red and white next season that many of us would consider expendable in the long-term.

I thought I would have a look at which particular cans Arsenal might be able to kick down the road to future transfer windows. Many of my choices are influenced by the fact that, in my view, creating more chances, scoring more goals and keeping opposition under pressure ought to be the priorities for this summer. Here are a few areas I think the club could afford to skate over for a year if necessary.

Back-up left-back
I have always been extremely dubious about the idea of buying “back-up” players. Much like movie sequels- the examples of successes in this category are minimal and the failures many. Generally speaking I think these roles should be given to young players, though I accept that, in this scenario, there doesn’t appear to be a young left-back capable of the role in the U-23s at the moment.

If you have to recruit this kind of player externally, I think it should be a young player. Senior players willing to sign for a club to play the role of deputy are usually looking after their pension. That way lies Lucas Perez and Cedric Soares. If you can’t source a young buck to clean Kieran Tierney’s boots then I think the best way is to repurpose another squad player. (Or else Arsenal could just keep Sead Kolasinac for the final year of his contract if they find suitors for him lacking).

Arteta tried this in the spring with Granit Xhaka when he really, really should have tried it with Bukayo Saka. I think Arsenal can afford to make Bukayo Saka their back-up left-back, not least because they have sufficient depth in the wide-forward positions to cover for his relocation. Nicolas Pepe, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe can all play the wide positions well enough and they are all good at the football.

Sometimes, as fans, I think we obsess too much about who our “back-up” players are. Manchester City and Chelsea can buy two top class players in each position, Arsenal and Liverpool, for instance, cannot. When Liverpool were winning the Premier League and the Champions League, their back-up to Andy Robertson at left-back was James Milner.

During the Invincibles season, Arsenal’s back-up right-back for Lauren was Kolo Toure, who also happened to be a first-choice centre-half. When Lauren was unavailable, Toure moved across to right-back and Pascal Cygan came into the team in the heart of the defence. Teams like Arsenal and Liverpool have to bet on a core of 15-16 players and if important players get injured, well, you’re pretty fucked anyway, dude. Your (t)rusty back-up is not going to save you.

If Arsenal do not achieve their targets next season it won’t be due to a lack of a Ryan Bertrand. Saka is the best existing facsimile for Tierney in the squad, he is also really, really good at playing left-back and left-back is still a really important attacking position in Arteta’s system. Let’s not waste good money on another Cedric Soares. Have Saka as the back-up left-back and spend in positions of greater need.

Why can’t Ainsley Maitland-Niles be one of Arsenal’s midfielders?
Mohammed Elneny and Granit Xhaka’s Arsenal futures look far from secure and the former is likely to compete in the African Cup of Nations in January in any case. Dani Ceballos has departed and we don’t know whether Joe Willock still forms part of the club’s plans. Thomas Partey will also miss a chunk of next season representing Ghana at AFCON.

Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi have one foot out of the door already. The midfield cupboard could look very bare very quickly. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has spent a few months on loan at West Brom, eschewing advances from Southampton and Leicester to be a full-back, so that he could play in his favoured central midfield role.

I haven’t seen enough of Maitland-Niles in midfield to proclaim him the next coming in that position- but I also haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest he cannot play the role at all. Obviously, much will depend on what the player himself wants and with two years on his contract and a loan spell under his belt, moving him on does make a lot of sense.

I do wonder if he could be persuaded to stay for one more season on the understanding that he will be part of the central midfield rotation. Maybe he stays and doesn’t impress there, in which case Arsenal can sell him next summer without depreciating too much of his value (a serviceable 24-year old English player will always be in demand).

He might really impress and cement his status. I admit AMN remaining an Arsenal player feels unlikely, but if even three of Torreira, Guendouzi, Xhaka or Willock join Ceballos through the exit door, then the space is certainly there. If Arsenal don’t have the time to buy more than one central midfielder in response, keeping Maitland-Niles for one more season with the carrot of the opportunity to fight for a midfield place might be an elegant solution.

Calum Chambers gonna change your mind?
Speaking of unlikely redemption stories, Calum Chambers made a surprise overlapping run past Hector Bellerin and Cedric Soares into the right-back slot last season. Bellerin does not look longed for this Arsenal world while Cedric is unlikely to find many suitors willing to take a 30-year old on his current salary for the next three years.

I remain pessimistic about the idea of Arsenal being able to move Cedric on. As I said earlier in the piece, when you sign a deal like he signed at 29 on the understanding that you will be a back-up player, you are likely to be satisfied with that scenario. (And he is entitled to be, it is his contract and he is not obligated to tear it up based on my whim).

Since I wrote this piece about Chambers in May, it has become apparent that the club has a one-year option on his deal and there is potential for Arsenal to exercise that and take another year and a larger sample size to judge Calum as a long-term option at right-back.

When he came into the team at the end of last season, he certainly did not prove to be any kind of impediment. Nobody is saying that he is Cafu reincarnated but nor is he Stephan Lichtsteiner’s slightly cooler looking twin. Signing a top-class right-back to replace Bellerin is very much in the “nice to have” category, whereas restocking the midfield and number 10 positions (and offloading Willian) are in the “essential” column.

Arsenal can do more than survive next season, in my view, if Calum Chambers is their starting right-back, Bukayo Saka is the back-up left-back and Ainsley Maitland-Niles is a central midfield option. All of these scenarios are economically sound in that they cost Arsenal nothing and offer a set of tested solutions which have worked out well enough in the past.

Nothing enervates a rebuild like wasting money on crap players or conjuring up rushed solutions out of a misguided desire to get a warm body in. Arsenal have made this mistake many, many times in recent years (ALEX RUNARSSON) and all that happens is that you end up stuck with players that you don’t want. Right-back, back-up left-back and a third or fourth choice central midfielder are not urgent priorities, in my view, given need in other areas.

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