Here’s a question about squad management and squad building. Well, it’s not even a question as much as a topic of conversation. From a distance, it sounds like it should be relatively straightforward, buy players, foster a competitive environment, let them compete with each other, and the best players play every week.
Except when that happens some players don’t play very much at all, and generally speaking – bar some who are quite happy to sit around and pick up their wages – footballers who don’t play aren’t happy. And unhappy players can have an impact, directly or indirectly, on the team spirit.
As Arsenal go into these final 17 games, we know we’ve got a pretty small squad. Via the squad list on the official website, we have two goalkeepers (I know Arthur Okonkwo is listed, but let’s focus on the senior professionals), seven defenders, seven midfielders, and four forwards, for a grand total of 20 players. Now, let’s imagine these games go well, and next season we have European football of some description. There’s no doubt we’ll need a bigger squad than that to cope with Premier League, Europe, FA Cup and EFL Cup.
Depending on the flavour of Europe we get, we might become a more attractive destination for players in the summer window, although that is somewhat offset by the need to bring in players of a certain quality to deal with the level of opposition we might face. That’s a bridge we can cross as and when we need to, and hopefully we do need to.
There have been some signs of late that the decision making when it comes to augmenting the squad has been better. For example, bringing in Nuno Tavares as competition for/back-up to Kieran Tierney seems like a decent move. He’s young, has potential, wasn’t too expensive, and his expectations for first team football are relatively low. By that I mean he’s at an age where even if he wants to play all the time, he can understand pretty easily why he might not be picked if and when the senior man is available.
How it works out in the long-term is another issue entirely. If he feels stymied and that he doesn’t play enough, he’s going to want to leave at some point. Which, I guess, is what you want as a club. You don’t want a squatter, you want a player who will push for a place, but if it’s not happening is prepared to go somewhere else. Then, I suppose, you repeat the process, but with the more established player (Tierney) a bit older, you might adjust the profile of the next signing in that position to reflect that.
The quality is important, because you can have a player who is willing to fight and compete but may never be good enough. I think we have something like that at right back at the moment. Cedric seems like a solid pro, but we can all see the gap between him and Tomiyasu. The only way he gets to play is if Tomi is injured or suspended, and that removes the element of competition from that position.
There was a similar situation at centre-half with Pablo Mari. He was loaned in January 2020, made permanent in August 2020, and by January 2022 deemed of insufficient use to us so we decided to loan him out to Udinese rather than keep him as back-up for that left-sided centre-half position. His goose was pretty much cooked in the summer of 2020 anyway when we spent £27m on Gabriel Magalhaes, another left-footed centre-half.
Mari spoke this week, saying, “I haven’t had any luck at Arsenal, but when I’ve been on the pitch, I think I’ve given a very good level. In the end, there comes a point where you have to make decisions.”
To be fair to him, he was generally ok, and the only really terrible performance was this season against Chelsea when he was roasted by Lukaku. He never made another Premier League appearance for us. But should we be surprised that signing a 26 whose career trajectory was Gimnastic de Tarragona (then in the Spanish third flight), Man City (signed but never played), then loan moves to Girona, NAC Breda, Deportivo la Coruna (Spanish second division) and then Flamengo in Brazil hasn’t made it at Arsenal? I can’t think of anyone who has followed a similar path who has flourished in English football.
Again, by all accounts, Pablo Mari is a dedicated, hard-working professional who trained well and all the rest, but in the end the quality is key. He just wasn’t ever going to properly push for a first team place, and I fully expect come the summer he’ll depart on a permanent basis.
As we’ve spoken about time and time again, Arsenal have done too many deals for players who just aren’t of the right quality to get us where we need to go. We’ve wasted money on signings and contracts that just weren’t worth it, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how we do business this summer. Signing back-up players is difficult, but there are key positions where those kind of arrivals are going to be absolutely necessary, and getting them right will be an important part of our continued progress (hopefully).
There’s a brand new Arsecast Extra for you below, happy listening if you haven’t had a chance already. Till tomorrow.