The backbone of the 2026 PL-winning (and CL semi-finalist) team
We often flatter ourselves that albeit our current position – and often the performance – is not worthy of the club, but this is a transitional period, and we already have the young talents who are not only destined for greatness but will indeed achieve it in Arsenal’s jersey. I am a hardcore supporter, so I will not challenge this hope, but rather analyze which players already in the squad are capable of reaching world-class heights, and which positions do we need to focus are transfer activities to balance the team.
A few disclaimers in advance
- I expect this being a controversial topic, especially where I will put faith in players becoming first class that you consider Championship quality, and I apologize in advance if not including your favorite young talent.
- We don’t need 11-14 superstars to win the PL; every high performing team in history had a few ’just OK’ players, some even had free-riders, so unless you consider my nominee a particularly poor lad, we are not necessary in contradiction.
- I will break away from 2 major common knowledges of modern football: will not advocate for a mix of U21 and 30+ players, as well as discourage from buying/bringing 4-5 new players every summer transfer window.
- I will consider only the U23 squad with regards to future talents, so our promising contingent of the U18 team will not be included. Firstly they will be only about 20-21 in 4 years, and secondly we have very little intel at this time to foresee if some of them are indeed destined to greatness.
Rules of the „game”:
- Outfield players above 26 are disqualified. I will consider only guys born after 1993 – we already have a 2-years age gap there (nobody in the squad has been born in 1994). This will save me the conflict on Xhaka, of whom I have the highest regards, but including him in the title-winning squad would surely open Pandora’s box.
- Since goalkeepers are capable of performing on the highest level since their late 30s Leno has given a pass, unfortunately Partey had to be excluded. But this is only a game, so feel free to bend the rules when assembling your own preferred line-up including the then-32-years-old Ghanian.
- Under ’backbone’ I didn’t mean just 11 players, rather 17. For suspensions, injuries, substitutions and different formations we need extra legs. I will go into more details when discussing the particular positions.
Let’s go by position. Starting with the goalkeeper.
The goalkeeper question will be quick and easy. Leno is good, reliable and ’only’ 28. So although he is already in his prime, that period window could be extended to 2026. Having Martinez as the backup-keeper was great, and crucial for our 14th FA Cup winning campaign, but apparently it wasn’t sustainable.
There is no need to include a 2nd goalkeeper in the squad of 17, as this is a position that seldom gets injured, sent off or subject to rotation. Nevertheless I hope that Ryan turns out well (who is only 5 weeks younger than Bernd), and maybe we can nurture a good goalkeeper from Hein and/or Okonkwo.
What to do wit this position:
- don’t spend money on GK
- …beyond signing Ryan permanently if financially and professionally reasonable
I would like to have 6 capable defenders as the backbone. 3 CBs (for cover, rotation and sometimes even playing together in a back three), 2 full backs (one for each flank) and a deputy full back, who is capable of playing on both sides, and – more importantly – is comfortable with sitting on the bench for most PL games when both first-choice full backs are available. Of course there are no teams with only 6 defenders, but I would put minimal emphasis on the rest if we manage to get this 6 right.
When checking the current contingent, I’m quite optimistic. Luiz and Mari will be overage by 2025, but we have capable players in Arsenal. Apart from a couple of average games I believe Gabriel is already playing at a top level – let’s hope he stays fit and focused. He plays good with his feet and not error-prone. My other candidate for the 3 CB positions is obviously Saliba. While he is far from the required level at the moment, he only turns 20 in 5 weeks. He is tall and already got the ambition to try defense splitting passes from the back. If he continues his development (which is far from guaranteed), then we would be in the green zone. And call me naive, I wouldn’t look elsewhere for the 3rd center back either. Holding is clearly on the rise, Mavropanos is our most underestimated player (besides Nelson), and I secretly hope that one from Ballard or MacGuinness would come through. For the time being I would go with Mavropanos (to have 3 CBs where the shortest is 190cm), but I expect all of them to become reliable players in the next 4-5 years.
Regarding full backs it is easy to pick Tierney, as he is already probably the best left back in the league. I hope that he is on an unlucky streak and not injury prone, but the only priority with him is to stay fit. I have no shame or difficulties picking Belerin at RB, but I’m sure that this opinion is not unanimous. Nevertheless as long as he doesn’t leave us for a better team where he gets more appreciated I think we are not in a huge risk there. When Hector has his better games he is really good both defensively and offensively, but the proportion of his good games are slightly on the decline in the past years. If the coach manages to revert that, then we will have an exquisite defensive line in a few weeks. For the deputy full-back position Ainsley Maitland-Niles would be the obvious candidate, but – to be honest – I’m not entirely sure on his defensive skills, and he is not too keen on playing full back either. Which is a pity, as he has Arsenal DNA written all over him, he is a joy to watch taking penalties, and he has history on both flanks. And as stated above, it could prove difficult to sign a young starlet for a deputy position. But this is not in our hands, so let’s be patient as long as Soares can cover, and see what happens to AMN.
What to do wit this position:
- don’t spend money on defenders either, but
- give the youngsters the best coaching and support available
- we already have the talent, let’s not waste them
I would prefer to have 5 players here: 2 DMs, 2 CMs and an attacking midfielder. Let’s start with the latter, as it is an easy choice: Emile Smith-Rowe is a great talent and based on his current skills he is destined to the top. If he can stay fit and continue his rising trajectory then our AM role is filled for a while. Still, if we have the opportunity to sign Odegaard I would recommend going for it, as we could see against Leedsand Benfica that they can play together in the same team, and will not suck the minutes from each other. And AM is a high pressing position anyway, so they can substitute each other to prevent late-game fatigue and/or injuries.
Moving back to defensive and central midfield, all our current 3 DMs are reliable, but unfortunately over 27. For those 4 players I think 2 or maybe even 3 of them are within our reach. While the jury is still out, I like how Ceballos is playing, Dani is surprisingly good defensively for a CM, and his passing is smart and reliable. If we can buy him for 20-22M that seems like a no-brainer, but let’s see in the next few months if he can regularly repeat the quality he demonstrated against West Brom, CP and Leeds. For the sake of simplification let’s consider him and Guendouzi to halves: maybe both deliver or both turn out to be a flop, but I count 1 position covered. And I would allocate the 2nd position to one of our U23 starlets, hoping that at least 1 from Azeez, Cottrell, Cirjan and Matt Smith will break into the first team in the next couple of years (so now we don’t have to rely on Bandeira, Hutchinson, Patino or Flores). I’m afraid that we have to purchase the other 2 from the market. Instead of going for the relatively unknown South-American starlets around 10M or gamble with 30M players from the ambitious teams in top leagues I would go directly for the cream. Obviously not now, as we have Xhaka, Partey and Elneny in the squad, but in 2-3 years. For the defensive midfield I would prefer to sign Camavinga or Declan Rice. And for the CM position let’s go for Aouar, unless there is a sale on Frenkie de Jong. Or maybe Gravenberch turns out to be a hit in a few years… Again, this is something we don’t have to rush, unless we sell Elneny and Willock in the summer – which I wouldn’t mind, but I belong to the minority on this matter.
What to do wit this position:
- carefully check whom we can reintegrate to the team or sell for the right price
- stop this terminating contract + free transfer madness (Mustafi – who did not only earn MotM in his 2nd Schalke game, but also became player of the week; Mkhi, Sokratis)
- wait for the right moment, trim the squad and sign only a few players but from the top of their tier
Since AMs were already covered in midfield, I would settle for 5 players of high calibre for the attack. 3 wingers – preferably all of them capable of playing on both wings and 2 classic attackers. The great news is that we already employ 3 of the finest wingers: Saka, Martinelli and Pepe, and all of them can still improve in the upcoming years. Plus we have Nelson, whose future is already in jeopardy, but maybe he can still be saved. The bad news is, that we are less fortunate in the striker area. Aubameyang and Lacazette are both great players, but the 2 of them leave hardly enough minutes to youngsters – especially in a single-striker formation – to gain experience, develop and keep a consistently high quality. The question here is no longer if we can save both Nketiah and Balogun, but whether we can save any of them. (Not to mention Möller, as we couldn’t keep Sam Greenwood at the club.)
I don’t see we have any other choice than to let Auba run down his contract. Lacazette doesn’t have such a high salary – and is 2 years younger – so we can theoretically sell him this summer, especially as his contract ends in 2022. It would be a shame, as he provided some of the most important sparkles this season, but losing Balogun and Eddie would be an even bigger shame. And I assume I’m alone with the „let’s not sign anybody this summer!” opinion, so if Edu wants to bring in a striker like Odsonne Edouard or Patson Daka, then he definitely has to sell Lacazette. However my preference would be to keep them both, send Nketiah on loan and give Balogun a few hundreds of EL and cup minutes, but this ship has probably sailed already, as it didn’t happen in January.) The Lacazette strategy should be a delicate one, because if we don’t sell him this summer for a proper price then we should extend his contract, as losing a player of his caliber (as well as value and signing fee) as a free agent is something only the lamest clubs do. Nobody knows what the market will be like this summer, and it would be unwise to sell Alexandre for 18M anyway.
Independent from my preference there is a slight chance that Balogun will stay if and only if Lacazette is sold, so let’s pursue that scenario and assume that Eddie and Folarin will compete for the bench and the EL/cup position thus 1 of Nketiah, Balogun, John-Jules and Möller will stay beyond 2023 and will become a top striker in the PL. Still I would recommend to sign a top forward in 2023 when Auba retires (he makes too much money to keep beyond his 33th birthday, unless he returns to his 30+ goals per season habit), and I would again prefer a TOP 5 stiker instead of someone from a French or German mid-table team. Of course a lot can happen in the next 2 and a half years, but based on the current ’supply’ I would rather break the bank for Mbappe or Haaland (or their equivalent in 2023). Which could prove to be beyond our reality – as they would not be keen on joining a team aspiring to get the 3rd-4th place of the Premier League, but financially could be possible if we don’t spend unnecessary millions every summer and winter transfer window. (Salary shouldn’t be an issue, as Auba and Willian already earn over 250k/month which should be enough to anybody who doesn’t have an ego on par with his talent. But in 2023 we will remove both Willian and Auba from the wage bill, so theoretically we can go beyond 300k if absolutely necessary.)
What to do wit this position:
- rotate the 3-4 top players for the winger positions properly, so nobody gets untimely burnout, but still get the minutes necessary for their continuous development (this could be a challenge with Willian in the squad, but that ship has already sailed)
- make a wise decision on the Lacazette exit strategy taking only the club’s long-term best interest into account, independent from the supporters’ and agents’ pressure (this could also be a challenge as I’m not sure if the board possesses the required competency portfolio)
- nurture our current strikers so at least one reaches a level that all PL teams would be afraid of him
- when Auba and Willian leaves the club in 2023 purchase a top level striker in his early to mid 20s
Due to magnitude (character-count) reasons, this post ends here and returns in a few days with its conclusion rather than becoming TLDR.
How Arsenal’s 2026 PL-winning (and CL semi-finalist) team could look, what should Arsenal do and what should we avoid to get there?
Following and concluding my previous post on the backbone of our future golden generation, implying that we are only 4-5 years and 3 quality players away from becoming the best team in the UK and one of the best in Europe, let me wrap up with a few popular line-ups in different formations and the 12 laws to guide us on the path leading to it.
4-2-3-1 attacking (current)
5-3-2 counterattacking (a.k.a 3-5-2 Italian)
4-4-2 wing focus
4-4-2 central diamond with 2 forward wingers
4-3-3 RM/Liverpool style
4-1-4-1 (parking the bus)
So at the end of the day/season what should Arsenal do? And what should we avoid? Here are my 10 commandments on the topic – with some admittedly overlapping recommendations:
- Further trim the squad! While the current headcount of 26 is not insanely much, we have 7 players expected to come back from loan, and maybe a couple promotions from the Academy. So we should sell/release a few and find new, efficient loan destinations for those who are in Arsenal’s long-term plans.
- Don’t give in the temptation to sign players for non-critical positions. Manor Solomon could be a hidden gem, but we need a further winger like squirrels need wildfire. Same applies to Zaha, Dembele and Buendia, as well as attacking midfielders likeDraxler, Brandt and Coutinho. They are all evidently fine players, but – contrary to popular misbeliefs – would not make the team stronger, but weaker. I don’t fancy a new left-back either.
- When identifying positions needs strengthening, we cannot go and immediately purchase a superstar, unless/until the current players there are offloaded or retire. If we cannot resist buying, always sell at the same time or beforehand. The more is not the merrier any more. Make sure that the new guy is younger, and at the same time at least a clear level above our current player on the position, so only sign Odsonne Edouard or Jonathan David if we are positive they can score 20+ goals every season AND if we can sell Lacazette for a reasonable price. And it still wouldn’t help Nketiah’s case…
- Prioritize individual and team coaching. Focusing only on technical skills and tactical awareness is no longer enough. Motivation is key in order to reach a consistently high performance (which is painfully missing from Arsenal’s PL campaign), especially as the lads don’t play every minute of every game.
- When in debt, rather refrain from signing than going for lower quality players or unnecessary additions. Save money – and dressing room locker – on superfluous expenditures (including but not limited to astronomical salaries and transfers pressured by fans and pundits) to allow a critical addition a season later.
- Sign Ceballos or Odegaard permanently, preferably both of them. They are quality players, buying them permanently would be real reinforcements, so most of the above mentioned concerns don’t apply. Assess Ryan and buy him on the cheap if worth it.
- When we consider a utility/squad player for injury cover we shouldn’t aim for the best in position. To demand (the idea of) Fernandes competing with van de Beek and Wan Bissaka with Max Aarons for starting positions you have to be an entitled brat like most MU supporters. The competition among Giroud, Abraham and Werner didn’t turn out so well for Chelsea, so they are about to sign Haaland. I’m not even commenting that, TA would blue-pencil it anyway. J As I stated I’m not fond of buying a new left back, but if we must, shouldn’t look for Davies or Hernandes, but Dimarco or Karbownik.
- Give proper chances to the best academy players (maximum 1-2 per season), and sell or release the rest. But whoever makes it to the first team and proves themselves shouldn’t be hung out to dry.
- Forget about free signings combined with insane salary. It has never turned out well for us. Even if we must (?) go with a free transfer, better give a hefty sign-on bonus plus a salary on par with the other players in the team not to disrupt the balance in the dressing room. And no more swap deals involving players not on top of our shortlist.
- Review the coaching staff. Evaluate bringing Arsenal legends to the club (Bergkamp, Pires, Cazorla), or consider giving Luiz a player-coach role. Track record of past results could also play a role in appointing backroom staff.
- Stop signing players because we have a good relationship with their agent, because they are currently cheap, to land a blow to a rival or to make ourselves look fancy again. In fact, preferably refrain from signing anybody represented by Raiola, Felicevich, or any other disagreeable or unpleasent agent.
- Always have the club’s long-term interest in mind, nothing else. On one hand that means no individual comes before the club (player and staff alike), and on the other hand to prefer long-term gains over instant gratification.