Arsenal’s long-term quest is to be invited back to the glossy halls of the Champions League.
The Gunners are far down the invite list but an essential way for the club to elbow their way in is by maneuvering the transfer market far better than they have in the last few years.
Player transfers is the most important element connected to sporting success in football, and Arsenal have made a mess of it lately by signing ageing players with no resale value (Willian, Cedric, David Luiz, Sokratis), while too often not recouping their money on players with actual value (Ramsey, Alexis, Mkhitaryan, Lucas Perez, Guendouzi next?).
At the end of the day, it’s the eleven players on the pitch who win games, supported by tactics and a common cause.
Who Arsenal bring in – and depart with – in the next two transfer windows will determine the long-term success of the club and likely Arteta’s future as manager in north London.
Half the signings have been misses
Firstly, let’s look at Arsenal’s transfer incomings since the summer of 2018.
This is when Arsenal separated with Wenger and reconstructed the club’s executive level, including several different variations of their transfer operations (Mislintat, then Sanllehi, now Edu).
(This is my subjective estimation of each player since joining, giving a grade of Good, Bad, Average or To Be Confirmed, determined by their impact on the first team and the deal to get them)
Arsenal have signed 18 first team players in the last five transfer windows. Only five players have had a Good impact on the team with justifiable transfer fees and contracts. These players were starting players in their previous teams, aged between 18 and 26, who had an average price tag of £24m.
Eight players, almost half the signings, have been Bad since arriving. Free but old players with massive wages and no resale value is a common trait. And a £72m marquee signing with inconsistent performances has burnt the club.
Despite Pepe’s £72m fee, the Bad players’ average price tag is only £13m. Free players aren’t always worth it.
The verdict is still out in a few players including reserves imprisoned, now on loan, Saliba, who cost the club £27m.
Since Arteta took charge at the Emirates, Arsenal have signed Partey (G), Gabriel (G), Mari (TBC), Cedric (A), Willian (B) and Runarsson (B), and reloaned Ceballos (A).
Two Good signings, two Bad ones and three Average or unknown players.
Arsenal’s massively bloated squad and the club’s consequential January fire sale is a result of buying players who become difficult to sell, as well as a financially crippling pandemic and few buyers on the market.
The stage is set
Good news is, Arteta and Edu won’t get a better chance to reform the squad the way they’d like than in the upcoming summer window.
Özil, Mustafi, David Luiz, Sokratis and Ceballos will all leave the club as their contracts expire, while Kolasinac has already left on loan and is believed to want to leave permanently in the summer too. All superfluous players to the new regime.
These departures along with decisions on players with one year left on their contracts at the end of the season, like Lacazette, Elneny, Chambers, Nketiah and Guendouzi, will relieve heaps of space on the club’s Champions League level wage bill and slim down a crowded squad.
It also prompts opportunity to replace where needed with new players to take the club forward.
The players for the future
These are the players who seem to be the ones who will be part of Arteta’s plans, at least for the next year or so.
The manager has said he wants to conform to a fluid 4-3-3 system. As such, a new right-footed centreback to battle Holding for a starting positstion and a left-sided, attacking midfielder to help created chances, are top priorities this winter and summer transfer window. The same applies for a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Every position reviewed
Let’s take a closer look at each part of the team and how it might develop before next season kicks off.
- Leno, Runarsson
A new backup goalkeeper will be needed, as Runarsson seem a few levels off the standard required and won’t keep Leno on his toes. Runarsson starting over Macey says a thing or two about the Englishman too, whose contract expires this summer.
- Gabriel, Holding, Chambers (one year left), Mari, Maitland-Niles, Saliba, Mavropanos
Maitland-Niles’ versatility is massively helpful, as he can backup at rightback, leftback and in midfield. If he and Kolasinac leave this summer, however, a backup leftback will be needed.
Three centrebacks will depart Arsenal in the summer on expiring contracts, leaving the club with four + Saliba and Mavropanos in that position. Another squad player, in addition to a new starting centreback, should be considered if Saliba and Mavropanos still won’t be regarded as “ready” by then.
With one year left on his contract and few minutes under Arteta, Chambers could be sold in the summer. But the 25-year-old won’t have to be replaced if Sailba or Mavropanos is promoted.
- Partey, Xhaka, Elneny (one year), Torreira, Guendouzi (one year), Willock, Smith Rowe, Maitland-Niles
This is complicated.
If Xhaka, Partey and a newly signed midfielder form the midfield trio, Elneny, Torreira, Willock, Guendouzi, Maitland-Niles and Smith Rowe will compete for minutes coming off the bench.
What Arteta’s plan is for Torreira, Elneny and Guendouzi determines if Arsenal should bring in another midfielder to add depth. It’s reasonable to think all three won’t wear the Arsenal shirt next season.
Torreira enjoyed little playing time under Arteta and being loaned out to Atletico to free up a seat for Partey, it seems he will be one who could leave Arsenal this summer. Elneny and Guendouzi will have one year left on their contracts and will probably be offered away too. They’re all in a simliar situation and it might become a game of musical chairs, where the one who generates the least amount of interest from other clubs, thus not generating money for further player invesments, stays in north London.
If all three leave, Arsenal should replace two of them. If two leave, replacing one should be enough.
Willock so far hasn’t taken the same step forward as some of the other youngsters, and a loan away next season or this winter could do him well.
- Aubameyang, Lacazette (one year), Pepe, Saka, Martinelli, Willian, Nelson, Nketiah (one year)
Willian is likely going nowhere. No one would buy Pepe for more than a fraction of what Arsenal paid for him. Lacazette has one year left on his contract this summer and a decision has to be made on his future, if he is to be replaced for a younger starting striker or not. And Nelson and Nketiah will likely be squad players for another year. Smith Rowe can play here too.
The attacking group is quite bloated, and incomings should only materialise if players are sold. If Lacazette is sold a replacement has be brought in, as Nketiah isn’t quite at that starting level.
Nketiah, too, has one year left on his contract this summer. Looking to sell the then 22-year-old before next season, for a guesstimate fee of £15-20m, seems the best option. Giving the backup striker spot to Balogun, who’s two years younger, along with a contract extension, is an interesting solution.
By next summer’s end, Arsenal could easily depart with 6-10 players. Given the size of the current squad, replacing all of them is unnecessary.
Players who might leave, but not all, are Torreira, Elneny, Guendouzi, Kolasinac, Nketiah, Nelson (loan) and Willock (loan).
Players that will leave next summer with expiring contracts, if not before that, are Luiz, Sokratis, Mustafi, Özil, Macey and Ceballos.
Four new players: a backup goalkeeper, a starting centreback, a starting midfielder and another backup midfielder should join the Gunners before the 21/22 season. It will even the squad out in numbers while adding competitiveness and hopefully ability, and prompt Arteta to play his desired 4-3-3 system.
Smith Rowe has shown he can be trusted as the team’s playmaker in the Premier League. Bringing in a new attacking midfielder now should only be considered if it is a player for the long-term. If not, give the 20-year-old the minutes this spring and let him prove himself and develop further, then make a decision on a new number 10 in the summer.
Any registrational issues?
Though Arsenal omitted Sokratis and Özil from their full 17 player quota for non-homegrown players this season, buying foreign players won’t be a problem in the summer.
Mustafi, David Luiz and Ceballos free up three spots. That means if Arsenal want to bring in four new players, three can be foreign (as long as they meet the new Brexit restrictions).
Unlike this season, Nketiah and Willock will have to be registered for the next campaign, as they are over the limit of 21 years of age. But this is not an issue either. Even though Arsenal registered their maximum allotment of 17 foreign players this season, they only listed five homegrown players. Leaving room for three more homegrown players to complete their list of 25 players.
It’ll be an extremely busy winter and summer. And it should be. This is about cleaning the mess of former tenants while making sure not to make the same mistakes.
Further reading: Interview — A chat with Arsenal Twitter’s youth expert