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?
15 thoughts on “Where Should Arteta Spend his Money? A Proper CM: Cristante, Douglas Luiz, Aleñá or Koopmeiners”
A mammoth, super-analytical post, PB! Great stuff.
I think you are right that if we spend any money it should be in midfield but I reckon we need two players and see a bigger future for Willock than you do (also in a 3-4-3 formation which is anything but a given for next season).
I would sell Laca to free up space and money. Let Martinelli or Eddie take that central position and Auba when we are desperate. In central midfield the only player Arteta rates is Xhaka. The rest are question marks. Torreira just doesnt seem to settle, Ceballos is a massive gamble in terms of buying him. One or two decent games and plenty of potential but my jury is still out. Guendouzi and Ozil are gone and rightly so. That leaves us youngsters… So I reckon we will buy a couple of players here, and at least one of the them should be around 30 and fit straight in.
Fascinating assessment and one that had never crossed my mind (I am not a great thinker but I do mean it as a compliment). 👍 👏 I agree with you that a number of them could be viewed as interchangeable. Arteta seems to be having some preferences with the combinations he puts on the field rather than individuals, which I feel only supports your point. Having said that, despite the flak he gets I feel Luiz is a cut above the rest in defense.
From what I have been reading, it doesn’t look like Guendozi will be there with us long?
On the gap with top players, I feel that Ceballos’ and Pepe (for now) represent biggest weaknesses. For instance the gap between Ceballos and David Silva or Pepe and Mo Salah. Given struggles that players have had in adapting to the PL from the other leagues maybe their second years will bridge the gap. And of course their effectiveness is tied to the system, how they integrate with players around them, …
A rare visit from the Saint! Nice comment and I am sure PB will respond in time.
I agree with you re Pepe and Ceballos and the club needs to look at whose decision it was to bring these in. The former was at relatively low cost but the latter is the transfer elephant in the room. Like you say, he may still come good next season but boy does he look not worthy of his price tag right now.
Thanks for the kind words TA and St. Henry.
I agree that Pepe is not yet on Salah/Sancho/B.Silva level, but I truly hope that we haven’t seen the best of Nicolas. If my memory doesn’t deceive me, last season he was the only player (behind the divine Messi and Bruno Fernandes – of whom we should have signed ourselves) hitting double figures in scoring and assisting. So I expect him to achieve more next season. Especially with Nelson pressing him.
I agree with ur assessment to a point…my take is mustafi,sokratis and kolasinac should be sold cos dey are not reliable,in midfield we need a goal scoring midfielder who can chip in at least 8 – 10 goals per season and a shield (e.g partey,ndidi)for d defence..get a coutinho on loan,sign partey and we see how d season goes
Incredible post PB. I don’t have enough time to get into it all, but I want to say I agree with Total that in our case, the luxury of 3 excellent strikers plus Martinelli is too much. Can we please finally sell someone and bring in a bit of cash for a change, obviously is has to be either Laca or Aubamayang. Eddie is the future.
I’ve been complaining that we need a true central attacking midfielder. Ozil needs to be “resolved”. I like Ceballos talent, and would like to keep him. According to Graham Hunter he has no future at Madrid.
I’m hoping against hope that Pepe isn’t as bad as he looks sometimes. I always refer to his huge talent. I like to think that his lazy appearance is just from his languid style and size. But i do think he could work harder. We really need Mikel to get the most out of him.
When was this written? Guendouzi is off clearly, it is widely reported that Mikhitaryan had his contract cancelled and will leave on a free- and perhaps more glaringly, your well thought out diagnosis actually suggests some of these players are good enough and the squad needs little change to come good. Even Arteta doesnt agree with that.
i genuinely think we got the twin brother of Pepe rather than the real deal. The latter is strutting his stuff in a parallel universe! 😀
PB, My apologies I’m on my way out for more medical appointments so I have no time to read your post – let alone respond. I hope it stays up for while so that I can comment later in the day.
I cannot fathom what the hierarchy at Arsenal saw in Pepe that we can’t see?
He runs around like a ferret looking for a hole to hide in!
thanks a lot, pb – food for thought, indeed
thanks too for not fantasizing about players we won’t be able to afford, anyway, and for taking hale end into account
i like your “first XI” a lot; actually i hope it’ll turn out to be an inspiration for tomorrow’s lineup, to give us something like:
rob on the left … i wish mikel gave up his obsession for left-footed CBs, which you mentioned. terry, The Kos, puyol, ramos, desailly, … here are a few examples of formidable right-footed CBs playing on the left, i just can’t get my head around the problem there seems to be for our headcoach about that.
pépé out … i’m all for being patient with new signings, and i’m not blind to his many qualities, but last sunday he seemed to be mistaking a NLD with a nice stroll through a london park, and i’m still trying to get over that
bukayo behind our strikers; that’s where i’d like to see him – in a less “peripheral” role, as i said the other day, granit’s current position might even be the one best suited for him in the future
i can’t get through all the details you provided us with, and it would be disrespectful to pretend to do so, since, i’m far from having worked as hard as you did
just know that when i think of our future, i think “hale end scholars”; as i said at the beginning of this comment, you’ve taken that into account, but my “shadow XI” would look more like:
(and okonkwo, swanson, ballard, olayinka, smith, balogun, and johnjules, would be right behind them)
we shouldn’t be dreamin’on – we’ll never be able to compete (and personally, i don’t want us to) with oil-state-mercenaries, like citeh/PSG, and since they’ve just been allowed to vitocorleone their way out of rules, let’s just be the place where tremendous talents are spotted, nurtured, made to work hard, to play thrilling, attacking football, and where eventually they’ll be turned into fierce, proud defenders of the “name on the front of the shirt”.
Appreciate the effort PB.
I have to go in a different direction with a reconfigure of the team.
(Honestly am flummoxed by your idea that Arsenal’s season assist leader Bukayo Saka (with 12 all comps) somehow isn’t in your first XI.)
Instead of debating how we differ?
I’ll offer up why the philosophical position you’ve staked out– is mostly juxtaposed from Mikel Arteta’s own ideas.
From James McNicholas at The Athletic, yesterday:
“There was something bizarre, almost silly, about Arsenal’s defeat of Liverpool. Had the Emirates Stadium been packed with supporters, the cheers at full-time would have been accompanied by guffaws of delight and disbelief. And then, in a post-match interview, Mikel Arteta suddenly turned the mood serious.
For Arteta knows better than anyone that this Arsenal win does not suggest they are truly capable of keeping pace with the Premier League champions. In fact, the very nature of the victory suggests quite the opposite: Arsenal’s rearguard action confirmed their status as sizeable underdogs.
Asked whether he would have the finance required to fund a necessary rebuild, Arteta told Sky Sports, “I don’t know.” Is that a concern? “Big concern because you see how they build those squads and there is no magic. You need to improve the squad with quality, quality players and we need bigger squads to compete in this competition. And there is the challenge.” It’s a challenge Arteta has thrown at those above him: when the transfer market opens on July 27, are they prepared to give him the backing he needs?
It’s one thing to say it in private, quite another to do so in public. Arteta’s recent press conferences have hinted at concern over the club’s transfer budget but this was the most directly he has addressed the subject. It did not feel like an accident. Arteta, perhaps helped by the sanitised environment in which the game was played, was not caught in the emotion of the victory. He was, as so often in these scenarios, calm and deliberate in his manner.
Perhaps he picked his moment. After a win over the best team in the country, however fortunate, his stock is high. Arteta is quick to acknowledge he has “done nothing yet” but perhaps he senses he is one of the few good things Arsenal have going for them right now, and is leveraging that position.”
“Arteta, though, is willing and able to provide a little abrasiveness — some constructive friction in the interests of the team. His title may be “head coach” but it seems he won’t be bound by the terms of his job description.
Arsenal need a little of that: someone to unequivocally put football first. His message is aimed at Arsenal’s hierarchy — the executive committee who govern the sporting side of the business. It’s also a shot across the bows of the Arsenal owners. Josh Kroenke is in touch with Arteta via WhatsApp and the occasional FaceTime call but it is Raul Sanllehi who is the principal point of contact on football matters. Going public is one way for Arteta to bypass the head of football and make sure his point is heard loud and clear on the other side of the Atlantic.”
“If Arsenal can recruit intelligently, it may not take a fortune to improve them. After finishing in eighth position in 2015-16, Jurgen Klopp took Liverpool to fourth spot and Champions League qualification in his first full season with just five major first-team signings. The players came from Southampton, relegated Newcastle, Mainz, Augsburg and Schalke, with Sadio Mane the most expensive at around £34 million.
Right now, talks with some of Arsenal’s intended targets are on hold. The club are waiting to discover if they’re successful in either of their remaining routes to a European windfall. The Liverpool win has rekindled hope that Arsenal could make the top seven, while the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City is regarded internally as being of huge significance. Arteta can do his bit for the budget by leading Arsenal back into continental competition.
Then, the decisions will pass to those above him. Arteta may not get what he wants but he is right to try. He is advocating for what it will require to take Arsenal back to the top. It is his job.”
Per Arteta’s own words? I’ll venture that he’s willing to change much of his roster to jumpstart the teams capability to improve. Mikel has taken a team that was spiraling dangerously close bottom-third of the PL in December– to one that is now top-half– with a marginal claim to top-6 or better. Had they just closed the deal on several occasions since.
There may be 15 players who are keepers. A couple in that 15 that might still best be sold– to generate funds– and allow places for our talented youngsters to become first-XI or rotational starters.
The current makeup of the team with marginal improvements? That’s not how Liverpool accomplished what they have in 5 years. I can’t sign on to possibly treading water for another season with half a roster being of average quality.
If Arteta says buy a player? I’ll trust him better than anyone else in the club presently. Buy that player– then figure out how to afford them.
made in hale end:
Great comments to a great post by PB. Well done Piotr!
New Post New Post 🙂
Very interesting piece by James McNicholas and pretty much what he said JW on the Arsecast.
Yes, money is an issue, but it’s an issue for everyone this summer and if there was ever a summer where the Owners could push the boat out, take a risk and get exceptional value for money it’ll be this summer. If they pass up that opportunity by being too cautious and parsimonious then we really have no chance with them in charge…
A very full and detailed post PB, it was a very good read but I had very little to add so that’s why I didn’t, kudos to you though.