Arsenal hired Mikel Arteta in December 2019 and the mountainous task of a squad overhaul, a rebuild of a bloated, underachieving team, was set in place.
Six months earlier former Arsenal Invincible, Edu, was named technical director. And together with new CEO, Vinai Venkatesham, the trio was to transform a fading great into a new colourful threat in the Premier League.
Four transfer windows have now come and gone. Many fans expected the rebuild to be completed by now. Is it?
Arteta rebuffed similar questions about the overhaul earlier this summer, urging reporters to ask again at the end of the window. Arsenal were going to be “ruthless”, he said on a prior occasion.
Let’s dive in and see just what this rebuild looks like. How much money has been spent so far? What’s still missing? What’s been done well? There’s a lot to unpack…
Messy, messy business
Arsenal’s lineup against Man City this weekend included only two Arteta/Edu/Vinai signings (AEV for short), Cedric and Martin Ødegaard, and seven players who were at the club when Arsene Wenger managed.
Granted, Ben White, Gabriel and Thomas Partey would’ve started were they not unavailable, but those numbers still don’t indicate an overhaul close to completion.
That’s mostly a consequence of missteps and ugly divorces in previous transfer windows.
Arsenal have spent about £230m on twelve permanent signings since January 2020, Arteta’s first transfer month.
AEV’s first signing was Pablo Mari, who was benched over outcast Sead Kolasinac against the reigning Premier League winners on Saturday. AEV-acquired Willian had such a dire time at Arsenal that the club and player terminated the contract only a year into a three year deal. Failed attempts to find a second goalkeeper in Alex Runarsson and Mat Ryan is noteworthy too. Cedric hasn’t been particularly impressive either.
These failed signings added more time to the rebuild, as AEV effectively had to clear out their own deadwood. Nobody expected them to get every deal right but, again, four transfer windows in, having spent £230m, it feels like we should see the affect of that more clearly.
A bigger issue, however, is Arsenal’s inability to sell players. COVID has cut prices and fewer clubs have money to spend, but the Gunners (with Edu in front) have sold no more than two players for a fee since Arteta became coach: Emiliano Martinez (£16m) and Joe Willock (£26m).
That’s not good enough.
Arsenal have had to relieve the squad of five first team players for free or mutual termination of contract in that time. Alonside buckets of loan deals, Mesut Özil and Shkodran Mustafi had to be pried out of the club in costly divorces. It’s fair to wonder if the lost value from these breakups is a result of poor transfer management.
To make things worse, Alexandre Lacazette, Sead Kolasinac, Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah can all exit for free next summer and leave the club empty-handed.
But what’s now clear is that Arsenal’s rebuild isn’t for the short term, rather the long term. AEV have singed six players for £150m this summer, all of whom are 23 years or younger. That’s a clear indication of big picture planning. These players will grow together and hit their peak together. They won’t reach their full potential now or next year, but in a few years when the rebuild will be complete – once all the missing pieces have been added.
Hector Bellerin’s replacement, Takehiro Tomiyasu, will hopefully fill one of the positions Arsenal needed to strengthen for years to come. This summer’s business has also bolstered the central defence, left back and goalkeeping positions and added a starting playmaker and a central midfielder after an exodus of midfielders.
Going forward AEV might shift their eyes more upfield. Lacazette is on the last year of his contract and will be 31 at the end of it. It feels natural that Arsenal put big money towards signing a new starting striker next summer.
Depth to the midfield is necessary too and might become an issue as soon as January, when Thomas Partey and Elneny leave for the African Cup of Nations.
Additionally, AEV might want to replace some of their current centre-backs, after unimpressive starts to the season and not quite fitting the ball-playing defender role. William Saliba could be an in-house replacement for Calum Chambers, for example.
At the moment, this lineup is the closest starting XI designed by Arteta and co:
“You pay for the education of the young with points”
AEV’s rebuild is starting to take shape but is far from complete. They set out on a long term project and results will suffer in the short term, as we’re witnessing now.
The Kroenkes will be aware of this – they likely approved it – and that understanding might give Arteta extra time even as poor results add up. Changing strategies midway through a defining rebuild isn’t ideal. But it begs the question of why a first-time manager and club technical director were given such a task in the first place.
Wenger once said: “You pay for the education of young players with points.” A fitting comparison to the management of the club today.