Saturday, March 2, 2024

You say you want a revolution? Well…

Since the summer of 2020, Arsenal’s first summer transfer window under Mikel Arteta, the club has reconstructed its starting eleven. Ben White, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Martin Odegaard, (Willian!), Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale have all been signed, while Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Rob Holding and Gabriel Martenlli have all been awarded new contracts. Lokonga and Tavares have also been procured for a mixture of back up and future proofing.

Meanwhile, Hector Bellerin, William Saliba, Lucas Torreira, Alex Runarsson, Reiss Nelson, Dino Mavropanos and Matteo Guendouzi have been loaned out. Joe Willock was loaned and then sold, Ainsley Maitland-Niles went on loan for the second half of the 2020-21 season, as did Sead Kolasinac Emi Martinez has been sold, David Luiz’s contract was allowed to expire and Sokratis, Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Willian have been paid to leave.

That is a lot if upheaval and it’s far from over. Kolasinac, Luiz, Sokratis, Mustafi, Ozil and Willian were all starting eleven players to differing degrees at differing points of their Arsenal careers. Martinez and Willock hit the sweet spot of a) being relatively young and b) not having played quite enough for Arsenal to burnish their fledgling reputations and were sold for good money.

The first home game after the close of the transfer window, against Norwich, saw Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, Odegaard, White, Gabriel and Lokonga all start with Partey fit enough only for the bench. A look at some of the colleagues sitting around Thomas Partey on the subs bench that day gives you a good idea of where the next player cull is coming from.

The Arsenal careers of Bernd Leno and Alex Lacazette are winding down, at the very least. Neither will be Arsenal players in 2022-23. Calum Chambers’ contract expires in 2023 and I speculate that he will not receive another. Pablo Mari’s early season performances have led to a loss of faith in his abilities to the extent that he lost his place at centre-half to Sead Kolasinac in August.

Kolasinac was not on the bench against Norwich, he will leave when his contract expires in 2022, as will Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah, both injured for that match and also not on the bench. Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s contract expires in 2023 and plans for his long-term successor will be made next summer when Lacazette and Nketiah drift away on Bosman transfers.

That’s four Bosman transfers next summer, with the likes of Chambers and Mari also likely to be available on the market. I am guessing that Arsenal would entertain an offer for Cedric but recognise one will not materialise. Maitland-Niles’ contract expires in 2023 and it doesn’t sound like there is much hope of him signing another.

If Chambers and Maitland-Niles do indeed leave and Bellerin leaves permanently, Cedric’s presence probably makes more sense anyway. By my count, as well as the four contracts due to expire next summer, Arteta and Edu have eight players whose deals expire in 2023 who have almost no chance of renewal (Leno, Bellerin, Torreira, Maitland-Niles, Cedric, Chambers, Nelson and Guendouzi).

If the summer of 2021 felt like a revolution, the summer of 2022 is likely to be similar- this time it will mostly be dictated by players leaving. The failure to sell many of the individuals who are surplus to requirements is a temporary issue, it just means that the club have had to wait them out contractually rather than selling them on.

With no European competition this year, many of the aforementioned squad players will find minutes difficult to come by this season if they are not already out on loan. That might make selling Chambers, Maitland-Niles and even Leno a tough ask next summer. The latter will lose value on the market having lost his place in the Arsenal side, just as Maitland-Niles has.

We have seen that even homegrown status isn’t enough to shift unwanted wares in the covid impacted market. However, essentially, a lack of game time for squad players, in the strict footballing sense, isn’t Arteta’s problem anymore. Giving minutes to players like Elneny, Lacazette, Leno, Nketiah and Kolasinac no longer has any future value to him.

He doesn’t have to worry about catering for them short of making sure they don’t become so unhappy that they become disruptive. Being disruptive is usually what players do when they are seeking a move, these players are no longer angling, their availability is widely known. In the case of the Bosman cadre, they will want to be on their best behaviour in any case as they make eyes at potential suitors.

Arteta should feel a sense of liberation that pretty much everyone in the squad knows where they stand and there is no real need to balance plates. There are slight exceptions here, of course. The big loser in this shortened season is Gabriel Martinelli. Were Arsenal in the Europa League or Europa Conference League group stage he would probably start every game.

Martinelli is a rare example of a young squad player who Arsenal want to give minutes to for his development- but it’s proving tricky to accommodate. Lokonga will see himself as the successor to Xhaka and having only just arrived at the club, is likely to be patient enough to wait for his chance.

This is Martinelli’s third season at the club, his second was injury interrupted, there is both a sense that Martinelli is ready now but also needs to smooth out some of his rough edges with more regular game time. The obstacle for Martinelli is not just the progress of Smith Rowe and Saka but the presence of two very similar attackers to him in Aubameyang and Pepe.

Pepe and Aubameyang are relatively low touch attackers who specialise in end product rather than build-up and you can’t have three lead singers in the same band. The reality for Martinelli is that he will have to wait out at least one of Auba or Pepe or else benefit from the injury big biting one of his senior colleagues. Martinelli apart, Arteta does not have to be very invested in his squad players.

Of course, there is a balancing act here too. He will certainly need Leno, Lacazette and Chambers before the end of the campaign- he might even need them for extended periods. Keeping them vigilant enough to play to the best of their ability will be an issue for the coach but, ultimately, they are all playing for contracts elsewhere and they ought to be (literally) invested in that idea even if they are not invested in the Arteta ‘project.’

Most of Arsenal’s signings this summer were about strengthening the starting eleven, next summer will probably see a collection of Tavares like signings to add squad depth. Hopefully there is existing academy talent ready to be the next generation of Niles, Willocks and Nelsons. Either way, further upheaval is on the horizon.

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