Saturday, June 15, 2024

The 22

Since January, when Arsenal made a very deliberate decision to streamline the squad, there has been a lot of focus on how we’re going to bulk it up again – something that is now even more important as we have European football next season.

Speaking in April, Mikel Arteta made it clear what it is he’s looking for, saying:

If you ask me what I want it’s 22 outfield players and 3 goalkeepers.

Based on the current squad list on the official website, we currently have 3 goalkeepers and 18 outfield players. It’s fair to say that there are question marks over the futures of some of those players. For example, Alexandre Lacazette is out of contract next month and will more than likely leave, while Bernd Leno and Nicolas Pepe are players in their prime who don’t play enough and will surely be seeking pastures new. That takes us to 15 outfield players, requiring an addition of seven to bring the quota to where the manager wants it.

We know there are a couple of main targets for midfield and forward, so without jinxing those deals let’s assume they go through, that’s 17. If the issue with the young Brazilian Marquinhos signing a pre-contract agreement with Wolves doesn’t affect his transfer being completed, that’s 18 – although we’re unsure at this point as to his readiness for first team football in England.

It still leaves 4 places to fill. William Saliba as an addition to the central defensive roster makes a lot of sense, but as yet there’s still some measure of uncertainty over what’s going to happen with him. He’s got two years left on his deal, there’s a lot of talk about us offering him a new contract, but ultimately that is going to hinge on what the player wants. He seems to have had a good time at Marseille, he plays regularly, and as much as some might say ‘Well, he’s our player’, you can’t ignore that aspect of this situation.

However, let’s assume that he’s on board, that’s a 19 man outfield squad with Aaron Ramsdale, Matt Turner + a young goalkeeper to make up the three. Personally speaking, I have some worries about the gap in quality between our first choice full backs and the back-ups, and while it’s not impossible that Nuno Tavares could learn a lot from this season and improve, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Cedric is what he is at this point, and isn’t going to change.

It’s also worth considering the stylistic issue that exists when you build a team with Takehiro Tomiyasu as the right back, but then you have to do without him and play Cedric instead. It’s sort of like having an classic big man style centre-forward but in his absence your next option is a small bloke whose presence means you have to play in a different way. It’s not to say that right back and striker are the same in terms of importance to a team, but I don’t think a chalk and cheese approach to first choice / deputy makes much sense. Tierney and Tavares are different, but not miles apart like Tomi and Cedric. Some variety is good, but not a vast chasm.

The presence of Saliba in the squad might allow for Ben White to shift over to right back if required, and as a player he’s much more analogous to Tomiyasu, so that’s a potential option, but that position is one I would be giving serious consideration to if I were Arteta. Maybe the successful loan spell for young right back Brooke Norton-Cuffy (good video here) might see him get a chance, especially with Europa League group stage games on the cards, but it will depend on how ready they think he is. Arteta has shown he is willing to play young players, but he also won’t be rushed if he thinks they’re not quite there – and his justification is usually based around what’s best for the player to ensure they get the best possible opportunity when they are called on.

We still have three places to fill in the squad, and the transfer market is the most obvious way to fill them. There are loan players returning, like Reiss Nelson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Hector Bellerin and Lucas Torreira, but all of them have a year left on their deals, they’re not really in the plans, and the sensible option in each case is to try and squeeze as much value from them as we can by moving them on. The first two are young English players who should generate some decent revenue, especially if they stay in the Premier League, while Torreira and Bellerin, for their own reasons, want Italy and Spain respectively. The financial fire-power there is limited compared to English clubs, and unfortunately we might be in take what you can get. It’s better than them leaving for free next summer.

Someone like Flo Balogun could fill one of those positions to give us some centre-forward depth, but I wonder if he’d benefit more from a full season out on loan to play regularly and really continue his development. Pablo Mari could fill a place, but the question is should Pablo Mari fill a place?

Nevertheless, while the incoming fees are potentially small, the volume of players we’re looking to move on should generate some money. Those three additional players don’t have to be superstar signings, and I think the big outlays will be on forward and central midfield, so maybe you’re looking at three Tomiyasus (in terms of fee and quality), a player who cost £16m last summer, and three of those wouldn’t break the bank. It’s fair to say that if Europe is a slightly depressed market that doesn’t have the cash for big money incoming transfers, it should work the other way too, even though they jack the prices up when English clubs come knocking.

All of which is a long way of saying that this summer’s squad building project, if we can call it that, has plenty riding on it, and it’s another relatively complicated one, even if the end goal seems pretty simple: 22 outfield players and 3 goalkeepers.

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