For a few years now, European football has been different for Arsenal. We had a season without it. We had some good nights in the Europa League but also some very disappointing ones at late stages, and as a tournament it’s an odd one because you spend the group stages using it as way to give fringe players some minutes. It’s considered the poor relation in many ways.
The Champions League is different, and all going well we’ll remember how different next season. You’ve gotta play your big boys, and the dual challenge of Premier League + midweek Champions League using more or less your best players every three or four days is part of why Mikel Arteta wants his team to get prepared for that. He keeps talking about it, and this why.
Last night, Liverpool flew into a 2-0 lead against Real Madrid, but then:
Liverpool 2-0 Real Madrid
Liverpool 2-4 Real Madrid
— Beardy McBeardface (@beardedhannon) February 21, 2023
It ended 5-2. At Anfield, blimey. I know this is a less secure Liverpool side than previous years, but still. It’s a nice reminder for us that the landscape of next season will be different, another step in our evolution, but let’s also be clear it’s something I’m sure the players, manager and fans will relish.
Just don’t make Don Carlo do the eyebrow thing.
At Arsenal, the club announced yesterday that Mohamed Elneny has signed a new contract with the club which will take him to the summer of 2024. I’ve seen some eyebrows raised at this, not least because he suffered a serious knee injury a few weeks ago, and it’s likely to keep him out for the rest of this campaign and potentially the start of next season – depending on recovery.
Some would see this as an opportunity to move on from a player who spent most of the season on the bench, understudying Thomas Partey at Premier League level (just 109 minutes in total), and who missed most of the Europa League games due to an injury sustained in the summer.
However, I think you have to look at this in the context of what Mikel Arteta has built at Arsenal during his time here. He has fairly ruthlessly culled his squad, getting rid of anyone that doesn’t fit – to his mind at least – regardless of their stature, their contract status, their wage bill and anything else you can think of. He has done that to create a culture at the club which requires 100% buy-in from every player, and the reality of that is now evident when you look at the table. We’re having a great season, one we all hope will end with success, and the squad-building element of it shouldn’t be ignored.
As such, when one of your players gets injured in training (we don’t know how either, it might have been an innocuous incident or a heavy challenge), and then faces a summer where he’s out of contract and doing rehab which makes it difficult for him to find a new club, what is the right thing to do?
A few weeks ago, Arteta said:
Our way of treating people, our way of living together and what we expect from people is to give the maximum. When it is the other way around and things become difficult, I think the club have to behave in the right way.
There’s precedent for this. Santi Cazorla’s contract was extended when he went through that terrible period with injury which seriously threatened him with retirement. The security that year gave him to then go on and rekindle his career was vital. He later said, despite the fact he was let go the following summer, he was ‘eternally grateful‘. In 2015, Arsene Wenger handed a one year extension to Arteta himself despite the fact he’d suffered an injury hit season the year before which saw him play just 12 games. You have to imagine that’s something he hasn’t forgotten.
This isn’t about being nice to old lads though. It shows the players that the club have their backs. When you’re asking them to run through walls for you every weekend, you have to demonstrate it’s not just a one way street. I think it’s the right thing to do. Elneny has reportedly accepted a wage cut to stay, which shows his desire to contribute and remain part of this group, and you have to recognise that every player will see how a popular figure in the dressing room was treated.
It could be them down the line, and I think people need to think about how teammates will respond to this on a purely human level. When you’re trying to convince some top young talent to stay and sign new contracts, this shows that the club will be behind players if it is merited. It won’t be the be-all and end-all when it comes to those negotiations, far from it, but being cold-hearted in our decision could definitely be damaging.
As for the summer, I don’t think keeping Mohamed Elneny is going to have any impact on our desire or ability to upgrade midfield. It’s not as if his wages are an impediment to any potential transfer, this won’t hamstring us financially in any way, and we’ll still have room in the squad. We retain a decent squad player who can play a limited role when required (as squad players often do), and someone who could be pretty useful when the demands of Premier League and Champions League kick in.
It makes me so proud to have represented this amazing club since 2016. The spirit and togetherness we have in our squad right now is so positive and I’m so happy I have extended my contract.
Togetherness. You said it, Mo.