I realize that the following is going to sound…preposterous. Especially after the summer that Arsenal have had. But I’m willing to take that risk to mainly ask the question of the club — what exactly is the plan?
This is essentially where we are at with Arsenal: they’ve done some decent offseason business but now are left extremely top heavy. And my issue with that is that I don’t think the club and Unai Emery meant it that way. I think Arsenal got in who they could and will now try to figure it out. The good thing for them is that it seems they’ve stumbled into a potentially brilliant strategy.
Here is what transpired with Arsenal’s transfer window this past summer: the club jettisoned Aaron Ramsey to Juventus on a free. I’ve already discussed how big of a gaffe that was to lose their most talented midfielder. Petr Čech retired. And Laurent Koscielny, their captain, refused to stay with the club. It’s as if he just got homesick overnight and had to head back to France. Awesome. He eventually, after a reasonably long saga, signed with Bordeaux. Good riddance to players not wanting to play for the badge but Arsenal could have used him in the back. Those were the significant outs (Stephan Lichsteiner and Danny Welbeck were also released).
And then came the buys! Big buys! Arsenal secured Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid on loan. The 23 year old Spaniard is a central midfielder who is creative and can attack. This was a wonderful grab by the club and Ceballos, once he gets settled into the toughness of the Premier League, should thrive. And after that came the silver tuna Nicolas Pépé. Arsenal splashed £72m on the 24 year old French winger! Pépé scored 23 goals in total for Lille during the 2018/19 season and was heavily sought after. Lille played the market well and leaked out information making it seem like everyone in the world was after Pépé to raise his price, which is, as we all know, a common strategy. So Arsenal had to pay up if they wanted their man. And they did. The money was huge but Arsenal are a huge club. This certainly showed the fans intent and desire to push for trophies. And if a top talent shows up and you can purchase him, sometimes you just do it and make it work later.
But this is where the issues begin. £72m on an attacker means you start him every match. A loan deal for a prized Real Madrid asset means you start him, if not every match, then very often at the least. Arsenal already have one of the best strikers in the world in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Gabonese frontman scores at will and looks likely again to pour in the goals this season. Auba is in the throes of forming an absolutely lethal duo with Alexandre Lacazette. Lacazette hasn’t really fulfilled his potential and become the hitman the Gunners expected when they bought him from Lyon in 2017 for a steep £52m. Until now. He is finally working well and thriving in tandem with Auba. Lacazette was always good for a goal but late last season he was at times looking like that confident and prolific striker the club pined for.
So, with Pépé starting, do you now break up the budding Auba-Laca team? Or do you make room for all 3? If you only start Pépé and Auba, it seems like a gamble to ice out Lacazette after he’s finally found form. If you go with the trio, a brilliant and fearsome one at that, then that leaves room for only 3 midfielders.
The midfield — Mesut Özil is firing after all this time. He looks like he has finally gotten over the hump and is free and fully enjoying his football and his place at the club. Özil also wears the armband with Koscielny and Čech departed. So, does he make up one of the midfield behind the attackers? You need your captain, right?? If not then you’ve sort of wasted the massive amount of money the club has thrown into Özil. Money he was earning whilst not playing that well. Now is the time the club should be enjoying as they deserve this form of his. They’ve paid for it! If he does start (along with Ceballos) then that leaves one or two slots open at most. And none of the players I’ve mentioned so far are known for their defending.
So there needs to be an anchor or holding midfielder. Let’s make that Granit Xhaka. With Xhaka, Özil and Ceballos behind Pépé, Auba and Laca that’s an extremely talented, but wholly attack minded front 6.
And I understand the complexities of managing. I understand the season is long. I understand players will get their chance. But my point is that Arsenal have put themselves in a position where they now will have to rotate/man manage to keep an entire roster content. Who plays in the biggest of games and what is the scheme?
Arsenal have not recently been in the position to manage the egos of players not playing. They just haven’t had the depth of elite talent they now possess. It’s a skill. And can matriculate into a disruption. Some of the names of the stars who could be sitting quite frequently (including the names above if they don’t start): Henrikh Mkhitaryan (for his sake, they should sell him), Lucas Torreira (whom they purchased just last season) Matteo Guendouzi (while still young has been a bright spot and been properly developing with the minutes he was getting), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (a young and promising academy prospect), Joe Willock (another youth product and one who plays centrally) and Mohamed Elneny (who may leave by September). Alex Iwobi, the 23 year old Nigerian forward, has been a direct casualty of this summer window. A young talent with bags of potential has been forced to move on to get the crucial time he needs on the pitch. He left for Everton for a pittance at £35m given his age and pedigree (don’t forget he’s the nephew of icon Jay-Jay Okocha). Iwobi had been at Arsenal since he was EIGHT years old. They had groomed him. He is a genuine Gunner. And yes, he hasn’t developed into the superstar they hoped for (yet), but that shouldn’t be someone your club lets go.
With Iwobi and Welbeck (Watford have really worked a trick getting a quality Welbeck on a free for relatively low wages as he’s worth a punt if fit) gone, that is two less forwards to worry about. Manager Emery will surely have to conjure up a rotation policy and keep assuring his squad that their time will come (his primary objective will be to keep Özil and Lacazette happy). Or players will leave. And that’s not something Arsenal can have happen after finally finding the depth a champion craves. Ask Mesut Özil and DC United about leaving (rumors still flying about his departure in January should a big contract come in as DCU sees Wayne Rooney leave for Derby County). And as we’ll see as the season progresses, that’s just the beginning.
And all this while, Arsenal didn’t emphatically address their major concern: the defence. The back line is a bit of a travesty. A back two of Sokratis and Calum Chambers or newly signed David Luiz is not a combination of players that leads you to silverware. Chambers is coming off a loan season with Fulham which saw them ship a mind boggling EIGHTY ONE goals. Luiz is erratic and is better in midfield. He’s streaky and unreliable. Sokratis is 31 and now also being shouldered with the responsibility of being the leader. Arsenal do have Sead Kolašinac, who is a left back by trade, Rob Holding, who is coming off a serious injury, and Shkodran Mustafi, who has been trying to leave the club for three windows and is still trying to leave before the European deadline, to deputize. The Gunners need Héctor Bellerin back (he ruptured his cruciate ligament in January and hopes to return in late September) to bring some legitimate next level talent and experience on the flank. And the club signed Kieran Tierney (as of now unproven in the Premiership) from Celtic as a left back. That’s the type of quality they’ll need to steady the back.
So now you play with what you have. And Unai Emery has to go full Johan Cruyff. Cruyff believed in attack and the beauty of it. Field as few defenders as possible and get those flair men on the green. And we know how Johan’s teams dominated and inspired. You use the roster you’ve created. Arsenal and Emery need to hold up their defence by scoring more, scoring frequently and bearing the burden of leading this team. There is nothing wrong with scoring more than you concede as a strategy. It can and has worked! The big job Arsenal have on their hands is fitting the pieces together to get these attackers all on the pitch and gelling.
Listen, Arsenal have a difficult task on their plate. Splashing this kind of money puts pressure on the team to finish in the top 4. And they will believe they can do it with Chelsea sputtering (a new manager, a transfer ban and no Eden Hazard) and Manchester United in a years long slump (but looking a new dog of late). How they do it will be the question and one of the best storylines in European football. Because if Emery can sort this lineup, we may be looking at one of the most devastating front 6’s in the game.
It will be a surefire roller coaster and one to keep an eye on all season long.