Arsenal’s new differentiator to take on all competition…
Please be warned: this post might rather be an interesting piece than a wise or deep one.
20 years ago, Wenger and Arsenal were the innovators of British football. Smart investments in young and misused players.
15 years ago, Arsenal was equivalent to the best team in the UK. The biggest clubs in Europe signed our established players.
10 years ago, we were all about consistent quality, challenging for silverware, always qualifying to and from CL group stage.
5 years ago, we probably still played the most attractive football in the league, but not nearly as effective.
But what distinguishes Arsenal now from the other clubs?
My answer is as follows: we are the Premier League club with the smallest distance between the (quality of) the first-choice players and their back-up.
I wish I could say something more cheering, but I’m afraid that this is the harsh reality. So, let’s embrace the positive side of it. In the next few paragraphs I will try to provide arguments for the claim above, and in some extent touch the topic of who could/will be sold, and where the squad needs reinforcement(s).
Disclaimers: I will assume that Auba and Lacazette will sign new deals – otherwise we need replacements – and will use Arteta’s recently favoured 3-4-3 line-up as default. When evaluating who is the first choice for a certain position I will try to apply/guess Arteta’s preference, otherwise would put the younger player as the second choice.
We have been talking about it in the last few weeks, we have 2 highly competent keepers at the club. They are about the same age and same size, and apparently enjoy the competition. Leno is a bit more experienced, but Martinez is the most senior member of the squad (Arsenal career). Long story short: even when our first-choice keeper is injured or suspended we don’t suffer. No reinforcements needed.
It might be controversial, but with the back three option the obvious middle defender is David Luiz. He needs a left footed partner on his left, and a right footed partner on his right. When everybody is available, they are Pablo Mari and Shkodran Mustafi. Yes, we have a first-choice trio where 2 of them didn’t play for Arsenal a year ago, and the third was the object of many fans’ prayers never to play for Arsenal again a year ago. 😊
I didn’t include Holding in the first 3 as he is the obvious choice for the middle defender in the backup trio – as well as Luiz’s probable successor as he retires. I would put Calum Chambers to his right, that’s a no-brainer. But to his left we have limited options. Kolasinac and Tierney are left footed defenders, but both are too valuable in supporting attacks and providing crosses than to leave them behind (literally). I have to go with Kolasinac here, mostly because the Scotsman will by my first choice LWB/LM, and also as Arteta used the Bosnian Hulk in the LCB position for 3 games in a row – but I think it was mistake and he probably knows it.
That means we have the reliable but ’unfancy’ Sokratis as surplus to requirement. And if the club manages to sign the free transfer Malanga Sarr (21y, left footed French U21 international CB/LB) then Kolasinac could face difficulties finding playing time too. And I didn’t even place Saliba, as I haven’t seen him playing, hence I don’t know where he is best suited to play. Mavropanos will likely go on loan to the Bundesliga (he is a fine player, I really hope he will not be sold), and probably the same fate awaits Ballard and Medley. One of them could be sold as we don’t need that many young prospects, but they both are quality material. Anyway – Sarr aside – we don’t need reinforcements here either. I know it is really hard to digest, but paying 70M for Koulibaly (29) is just crazy.
Wingback and wide midfielders:
This is again an easy subject. We have Tierney and Bellerin here who are expected to become the best wingbacks in the league in the next couple of seasons. And with Saka (LM) and Soares (RM) backing them up, we are not in a bad position at all. (Sorry, young Bukayo is not a first-choice player; and probably LM would be his best position as he can both defend and attack.)
It means that we likely have to say goodbye to the loyal Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who was tenacious and always ready to go, didn’t complain to be a guinea-pig in position experiments, but he couldn’t deliver consistently convincing performances. The silver lining here that he would very much like a transfer to blossom, and be the next Oxlade-Chamberlain, becoming the next big thing when given the chance.) Obviously: no reinforcements needed here.
Let’s go with the Xhaka-Ceballos tandem as first-choice midfield duo for now, as we have seen a sparkle of creativity there (for the first time since the restart). I really hope that we can sign the Spaniard for a reasonable price. That makes Torreira and Guendouzi our back-up engines. Which makes sense, as Guendouzi does the same job as Xhaka – but less efficiently – and in cup games he wouldn’t seem out of his depth. Torreira can make up for Guendouzi’s less defensive contribution and can support the attacks, but with less passing range and precision as Xhaka or Ceballos.
Since I focus here on the preferred positions, I wouldn’t consider Luiz or Chambers as makeshift DMs, even though that could boost Arteta’s tactical options. And don’t even bother with AMN, only Wenger would jeopardize valuable points for this sort of loyalty.
So, I would focus all the available transfer budget here. Not for a new DM, as Torreira is not a bit inferior to Zakaria, Ndidi or Neves, but we need a proper CM to serve the attackers. That could be Thomas Partey, who is an expensive but hard working and dependable midfielder (with only a single assist this year in 3500 minutes), or cheaper alternatives like Cristante .(maybe we can swap him for Mkhitryan), Douglas Luiz, Carles Aleñá or Teun Koopmeiners If we must splash the cash, I would rather go for Houssem Aouar (possible swap with Guendouzi?). We have the talented Matt Smith (19) and Miguel Azeez (17) in our ranks, but such a step could be too deep water for them next season.
You haven’t seen me writing on Willock. That is because he has no place in Arteta’s 3-4-3 system; and the same applies to Ozil and Smith-Rowe. But that doesn’t mean they have to go, as there are several formations (4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-1-2-3) where their skill can be utilized. But a Xhaka-Willock or a Guendouzi-Willock midfield duo would lead to a disaster at this point.
That is – again – a no-brainer, as all our coaches first trident consisted of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe; while we have the young and extremely talented Martinelli-Nketiah-Nelson trio waiting for their chances. And they are all very flexible as Auba, Martinelli and Pepe are capable of playing SC, Saka can (and would) play on the left wing, while Ozil, Willock or John-Jules can operate as RW. And we have some great talents in the academy too: besides the above-mentioned John-Jules, we (still) have the extremely prolific Folarin Balogun (19) and the universal Sam Greenwood (18). So as long as we can keep our senior stars, we are good in this department; and the fact that Auba is 31 and Laca is 29 could give hope to the youngsters that they shouldn’t request transfer as there will be vacancies here in a few years’ time. No reinforcements are needed here, either.
So, coming back to my main point: while you may argue that our first-choice XI I not necessary Champion’s League material, our second best lineup:
is not significantly weaker than the primary XI:
You may think this is not a big deal. But a Tierney-Saka, Luiz-Holding or even the Lacazette-Nketiah gaps is not even close of a Cazorla-Coquelin, Giroud-Welbeck, Lehman-Mannone or a Campbell-Cygan ‘discrepancy’.
The only big gaps are – in my opinion – between Xhaka and Guendouzi, and between Ceballos and Torreira. But the latter is not a quality issue, but a generally unfair (yet necessary) comparison of fine players of different profile. That’s why I recommend to focus our reinforcement to the midfield, using the available cash, the future transfer fees from Sokratis, AMN, Mikhitaryan and Elneny (and maybe Kolasinac, if we manage to sign Sarr) to buy a decent first-choice CM and maybe a young DM/CM prospect, especially if we lose Guendouzi or Ceballos.
My last point: why is it good to have such a small gap between the first-choice and the backup players?
Because we go far in cup competitions, where traditionally the young and/or backup players tend to feature. That was clearly the reason behind our recent FA Cup titles as well as our presence in this year’s semi-final, even though many clubs sitting above us on the table have dropped out.
Anyway, looking at the backup players of the top 6 teams:
- Liverpool would have a defence of Matip, Lovern and Williams (in front of Adrian or Karius), while attacking with Minamino, Shaquiri and Origi,
- Manchester City would probably still kick our asses in all departments,
- Leicester would defend with Fuchs-Bennett-Morgan-Justin, and attack with Perez, Slimani and Diabaté,
- Chelsea would have a tame midfield of Loftus-Cheek, Barkley and Drinkwater
- Manchester United would be attacking with Mata, James, Lingard and Ighalo
- and the Tottenham hitmen of Lamela and Bergwijn don’t look that terrifying either
What do you think? Where do you see the big gaps between the second and the first-choice player? And where do you see the most painful gap between our finest and the world-class level?