This summer was always going to represent an incredibly difficult transfer market. Arsenal are far from the only team struggling to trim the puppy fat from a bloated squad (Kenedy, Baba Rahman, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Michu Batshuayi, Davide Zappacosta, Ross Barkley, Ethan Ampadu, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater are all still Chelsea players).
The Granit Xhaka situation illustrates market stasis very nicely. My read on it was that neither Arsenal nor Xhaka was excruciatingly desperate to end their association. I think Arsenal thought they could get a good price by selling and the player felt he could get a longer contract by leaving. Once assumption x fell by the wayside, assumption y was addressed for the player with a new deal.
While I suspect there will be market activity yet, Arsenal are going to have to think of ways to improve on their squad without the level of player movement that they would have wanted. So where are those potential marginal gains? I think there are quite a few and, while we ought to be realistic about how many of these will actually happen; the team were six points away from fourth place last season- there are gains to be made and while Edu’s phone ought to be red hot, Arteta will need to think of ways to reshape the pieces he already has.
Arsenal’s trajectory in the second half of last season, once Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard came into the team, does give some cause optimism (even if Odegaard is no longer an Arsenal player at the time of writing!) The first half of last season was an incredibly unsettled one for Arteta and the squad- though we shouldn’t pretend that a lot of that dysfunction wasn’t self-inflicted.
In theory, there are some key elements of the line-up that ought to be more settled. The coach has moved away from the reactive 343 formation into something more befitting of a team that seeks to dominate games. The midfield partnership of Xhaka and Partey showed a great deal of promise last season, the issue with that double pivot, in my view, has not been Xhaka at all, it has been Partey and his ill-fortune with injuries. Fortunately, there is no sign that that situation will continue this coming season….
Development of young players is rarely totally linear, as we have already seen with Emile Smith Rowe, who burst onto the scene nearly three years ago now before injuries delayed his progress. However, there is reasonable hope that he and Saka can go to an even higher level this season. I perceive a fair bit of “give and take” in the Smith Rowe contract situation.
The player and his representatives played their hand strongly this summer, using interest from Aston Villa to underpin their demands and the player has been rewarded with the number 10 shirt that he coveted. He had every right to play his hand strongly but now there is a sense of debt and expectation. At the end of last season, Arteta was characteristically straight-faced in his assessment of the player.
“The number 10 of Arsenal needs to score 15 goals with 10 assists and then you are right up there with the top guns in Europe and in this league. He’s got the ability to do it but he hasn’t done it.” Following the signing of the contract, Arteta said, “He asked for [the No.10 shirt], so that shows you the ambition and desire. I prefer players who ask for more than maybe they can take but if they believe they can do it, don’t put a limit on it.”
I think this ought to create a positive environment around the player, he was rewarded for his performances last season and deserved every last bouquet. Now he has a new contract and squad number, the spotlight will be harsher and, hopefully, he knows that means that expectations will be higher. If Smith Rowe and Saka can go to another level next season, so can Arsenal.
Obviously, it’s not fair to ask two young players to carry the fortunes of the club on their shoulders alone. They will need to be supplemented by improvement from elsewhere and a good start would be for the captain to become reacquainted with his scoring boots. Even if Aubameyang can double his pretty paltry return of nine Premier League goals next season, that ought to represent more points on the board.
Likewise, in the forward positions Arteta and Edu created an unnecessary disturbance with the signing of Willian, which not only led to the coach persevering with an underperforming player for far too long, but it also cast Nicolas Pepe aside during a period when the team struggled to create and score goals. Once the Willian experiment was dialed down, Pepe was able to finish the season very strongly, further exposing the folly of the Willian transfer.
Again, we shouldn’t pretend that the persistent inclusion of Pepe will solve all of Arsenal’s problems. He remains a frustrating player whose wrinkles can be significant- however, Pepe being occasionally invisible and occasionally unstoppable in front of goal represents an uptick on the persistent invisibility that Willian offered.
Willian’s place in the pecking order as a (very overpaid) squad player is now far more set. The coach seems to feel less pressure to start him and that ought to lead from better outcomes from a superior, if still flawed, option in Pepe with Saka also playing from the right. One piece of business that ought to settle Arsenal’s roster is the capture of Nuno Tavares.
Kieran Tierney’s replacements last season were incredibly disruptive to the team and Tavares offers a much better analogue for Tierney’s qualities. He almost certainly isn’t as good as Tierney, but his introduction into the team should not necessitate a wholesale reshuffle. I am still of the impression that Joe Willock will leave if and when Arsenal snag another number 10 to compete and rotate with Smith Rowe.
There just doesn’t seem to be a place for Willock as a starter for Arsenal. However, if he does stay, I think he is ideally suited for a ‘supersub’ role- a role he played very effectively at Newcastle. Arteta has struggled to influence games from the bench during his stint as Arsenal’s coach, mainly because he is reluctant to tinker too much with the formation to turn it into something more enterprising.
Willock is a good option because he can slot into midfield when Arsenal are chasing a goal but offer far more penalty area threat in doing so. He can change Arsenal’s impetus without upsetting the formation. In fact, he managed this well enough during Sunday’s pre-season defeat to Chelsea and had goal line technology been in operation, he would have been credited with an equaliser from the subs bench.
There are potentially other marginal gains to be found too. If Arteta settles on Calum Chambers at right-back then that feels less like mid-season upheaval and more like a continuation, if Lokonga can prove to be a better midfield option than Ceballos- who didn’t really fit Arsenal’s style and wasn’t really committed to being part of their future- than that represents improvement.
Ben White improving on David Luiz would represent the most obvious improvement (let’s face it, if you pay £50m for a 23-year-old centre-half, he had damn well better offer an improvement on the 33-year-old he is replacing). Again, to be clear, not all of this is going to happen simultaneously. It is just as likely that none of it happens as all of it.
There will be complications and obstacles that are currently unforeseen and the manager will need to be flexible enough to adapt to them as they arise. However, Arteta’s focus ought to be on creating the conditions to make all the aforementioned as likely as possible. That will mean totally committing to players, possibly even imperfect players, so that they can shine and showing less of the muddled thinking that blighted last season.