Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Striking Out

It’s widely renowned that this season has represented a line in the sand for Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal ‘project’. With Benjamin White, Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Martin Odegaard , Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares all procured for a pretty penny this summer there is a sense that Arteta finally has his guys in place.

Since the 5-0 defeat to Manchester City at the end of August, Arsenal’s most recent defeat, pretty much all of those new signings have figured prominently in the starting line-up (Odegaard is an exception here, having fallen victim to Alex Lacazette’s good recent form).

Tavares and Lokonga have played due to injuries to more senior players but after an up and down season last time out, Gabriel has been a permanent member of the line-up. Hector Bellerin, Dani Ceballos, Lucas Torreira, Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi and David Luiz have all left.

Meanwhile, players who are going to leave Arsenal in the next 12 months have been sidelined. Bernd Leno, Mohamed Elneny, Sead Kolasinac and Calum Chambers have all been jettisoned in favour of players who are more likely to see their futures at the club. We have a firm idea of who Arteta’s guys are now.

Of course, the exception to this rule is Willian, a player who was acquired by Arteta and Edu and just as quickly pushed out of the exit door. Willian was Arteta’s guy but very quickly he wasn’t. Given the Brazilian’s entire Gunners career was conducted during a time when fans weren’t allowed in stadiums, it has a very “tree falling in the woods” feel to it.

The other reason that Willian was such an anomalous signing is because he is the only player Arteta has signed who operates in the front three. Arteta’s rebuild has focused far more on defence and midfield. This is likely because he wants to build a foundation and not just in a defensive sense but because of how we wants to build play from the back.

However, the most likely reason that Arteta hasn’t significantly remodelled the attack is because he inherited a top-heavy squad. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smit Rowe have emerged during this period but Arsenal had also spent the guts of £170million on Alex Lacazette, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe.

Many of the roots of Arsenal’s recent decline lays in this trio of transfers- which is not really the fault of any of the individuals concerned. The Pepe acquisition invites the most serious questions on ROI. However, he is clearly not a bad player and has produced some excellent moments.

The decision to buy two centre forwards for £50million apiece within six months of one another sums up the muddled thinking that defined the end of the Wenger reign and probably doesn’t need to be relitigated here. The irony is that the pair are finally playing together in a satisfactory manner in a kind of 442 / 4222 system.

The PAL trio was meant to represent an exciting new era for Arsenal but the three players just have not mixed in any satisfactory way. It’s proved to be a very costly error and, in a sense, Arsenal are waiting some of these players out before Arteta can turn his attention to the attack.

Lacazette’s contract expires next summer, Aubameyang’s one summer hence and Pepe’s in 2023. It’s not inconceivable that the club lose all three players on free transfers. That’s perhaps more of a prediction than a certainty in Pepe’s case but, personally, I can’t see a party that is wealthy or interested enough to pay what would be needed to extract him from the club, even if I am certain they would be willing sellers.

It’s the Hale End graduates that have really kickstarted the attacking revolution but the next phase of the coach’s rebuild will revolve around the attack. A new centre forward will almost certainly be at the top of the shopping list this coming summer and it will be absolutely fascinating to see who piques Arteta and Edu’s interest.

It is difficult to get a read on what type of striker the manager would like given that he has veered between Lacazette, Aubameyang and a mixture of the two. They are very different players who offer very different qualities. My impression is that Arteta would opt for more of a Lacazette style facilitator but perhaps one who carries more regular goal threat.

The ideal scenario would be to find a Laca Auba hybrid, kind of like Brundlefly but without all the vomiting and disfigurement. Of course, finding such a striker who is available, affordable and willing to come to Arsenal might prove a challenge. Arsenal were interested in Tammy Abraham this summer; the first solid striker link we’ve had under Arteta’s charge.

Abraham is in the facilitator mould, smooth with his back to goal as well as being tall and quick, though his scoring record is streaky, at 24, he fits the profile of much of the club’s recent business. Abraham himself is off the market now, of course. It seems unlikely that Arsenal will buy two strikes of equivalent value to Lacazette and Aubameyang.

I think they will look to bring one player in who will be given a season to settle and be groomed as the Aubameyang replacement and the club will hope that Folarin Balogun can become the back-up. If he develops as expected, Martinelli ought to be able to take Pepe’s mantle as the technically not especially clean but prolific wide player.

Balogun and Martinelli will have to wait out Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe but it gives Arteta time to mould the players in the meantime. He will probably want the same settling in period for a new striker next season to gradually transition into Auba’s arse groove on the Arsenal furniture.

The attacking situation has been messy for Arteta but there is light at the end of that tunnel and he has time to go to work on the eventual replacements, assuming all goes according to plan. He also has time to pick out a striker who can best meld with Smith Rowe, Saka and Odegaard, who are important pillars of the attacking rebuild.

This sort of joined up thinking just wasn’t present when the PAL trio were bought. We already know that Smith Rowe and Saka can excel in the same team and we have seen enough to Odegaard to glimpse real potential in the unit just behind the striker. That arrowhead piece, however, will define the next stage of Arteta’s Arsenal.

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