Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Peeling the onion

During Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal reign, I, like many other Arsenal fans, have found myself referring to Liverpool as a kind of template for the rebuild the squad has been undergoing. The Liverpool comparison was an attractive one primarily because it was successful.

Not only was it successful but it was executed on a similar budget to the one that Arsenal are operating with. Liverpool’s rebuild was complete by the time Arsenal’s started in earnest, which gave a full frame of reference.

Chelsea and Manchester United fans are probably looking towards N5 and Arteta now as they contemplate their own rebuilds. One of the things that immediately struck me about Klopp’s remoulding of Liverpool was how he prioritised replacing and upgrading key pillars of the team.

When he entered the club, there were a select crescent of players who, in the manager’s mind, had to go as a matter of urgency. Benteke, Markovic, Sakho, Allen and Ings were out of the door very quickly. In Klopp’s mind, these players could not play his brand of football whatsoever and had to be sidelined and sold.

There were also players for whom the project was going to be built around. Mane, Salah and Firmino (Klopp inherited the latter and was a big admirer of the player from his time at Hoffenheim). They bought Alisson, Robertson, Wijanldum and van Dijk and Alexander Arnold graduated from the youth team.

For me, the most fascinating layer of the Klopp’s rebuild were the “one contract” players. There was a layer of the squad that Klopp’s ‘tolerated’ for want of a better word. Adam Lallana is the most prescient example I can think of.

Lallana had the physical and cranial capacity to play Klopp’s brand of ‘heavy metal football’. So he stuck around for a few years but, realistically, it was a position that Klopp always “had a pin in” for a later upgrade.

I think Klopp hit the jackpot when Barcelona decided to semi-bankrupt themselves buying Philippe Coutinho, who was a good player but one that didn’t fit Klopp’s vision. Anyway, this isn’t the Tim Stillman Column, la. What is the relevance to Arsenal?

Arteta has undergone a similar (not identical) prioritisation. There were players that had to go now, now, now (to be fair, in Guendouzi and Ozil, two of those were driven by poor discipline as opposed to their footballing quality), some who the project is built around and then, there’s the ‘second layer.’

This is the layer I am really fascinated by at this point in time. Because we are approaching the point where the second layer, or ‘the one contract players’, as I would have it, are getting towards a decisive point of their Arsenal careers.

As I write this, you are possibly mentally scanning the Arsenal squad list and wondering who those Adam Lallana’s and Nathaniel Clyne’s (maybe a Coutinho if we can find a club as stupid as Barcelona) might be. Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe signed new contracts in the summer of 2021.

In the case of the former, I would be surprised were he still an Arsenal player next season. Rob Holding signed a new deal in January 2021. I am not sure whether he will leave during the summer but I am also not sure I can see him extending his Arsenal contract again.

Emile Smith Rowe might be beginning to wonder whether he is the forgotten man of the squad. Arteta has signed Fabio Vieira and Leandro Trossard in the last two transfer windows and if I were Smith Rowe, I would look at that the way the cat looks at the cage you use to take it to the vet when you yank it down from the loft.

Then we come to Granit Xhaka, who I very much view as Arsenal’s Jordan Henderson. When Klopp joined Liverpool, I have a significant hunch that he viewed Henderson in the Lallana category of ‘one contract and then we upgrade’ players.

On the Arsenal Vision Podcast, we often joke about trying to ‘retire’ Xhaka all the time as we imagine how someone else might look in his position. Like Henderson, Xhaka continued to Hulk smash his way into that top layer of player both through his performances but also for the leadership that he provides to his colleagues.

It is well known that Arsenal were perfectly open to allowing Xhaka to join Roma in the summer of 2021 but the Italian club would not stump up the money. The Swiss extended his contract instead and, by all accounts, will do so again this summer. The year is 2057 etc, etc, etc.

It shows that, ultimately, the categories can be fluid. When Arsenal signed Aubameyang to a new contract in the summer of 2020, they made a statement that the project was going to be built around him for the foreseeable future, which proved to be a false dawn.

Aubameyang quickly transitioned from ‘the project is built around you’ to ‘you can’t even be in the building anymore.’ Xhaka quickly transitioned from ‘I don’t want to be in the building anymore’ to ‘I can’t picture myself anywhere else.’ Arsenal’s squad build is coming towards the point of shedding some of its skin.

My suspicion is that Tierney is probably already resolved that he will seek a new challenge in the summer and that’s fair enough. He is a good player and a good competitor, he wants to play and you want players that want to play. Smith Rowe, on the other hand, might be in the process of trying to stay away from the trapdoor.

Rob Holding probably has a more existential question to answer. I am sure that Arteta would be perfectly happy to keep him around but his chances of progressing beyond fourth-choice centre-half are slim. Is he an Elneny type who is happy with that role or will he take the view that, at 27-years old, he wants something else for his career?

Arsenal have come a long way in a relatively short time vis á vis their squad build. I still regard the summer of 2021 as a high-water mark for the ‘project.’ A lot of the cleaning out of unwanted players or those who could not ‘get on the boat’ happened prior to that but a lot of the current starting players have been procured since that summer. I think this summer, we might see some players who have made a strong contribution to the team during Arteta’s reign move on or else have their futures crystalised.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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