Arsenal have spent £150m in the transfer market as Mikel Arteta and Edu try to fill in key voids amidst outgoing woes.
As I wake up every morning to read the gossip or my Twitter timeline, it is safe to say I do not draw any Arsenal-sourced positivity. Being a supporter of our institution is a tough ask these days, or so I keep hearing.
Of course, that is not true. It is as it always has been and always will be, an honour and a privilege. There are thousands of clubs across England and millions all over the world, but it is this very institution that has taught me many valuable lessons in life, through success and failures, through euphoria and agony. We are all blessed to follow the fortunes of a team with such a rich history and a huge amount of glory.
That being said, right now, I am as worried as the next supporter, but some of the decisions our club and current manager are taking (or not taking) need to be given their due time before making a proper assessment. There are players still at the club who are not at the level we aspire to and there are areas that still need addressing. However, in a pandemic-hit market, the business that has been done cannot be dismissed just because it didn’t meet some of our expectations.
Back in March, following injury hiccups and a blotted squad, Mikel Arteta was asked how far that Arsenal side were to being a side he viewed as his own.
“Very far. Very, very far,” was the Spaniard’s unwavering reply.
“There’s still a lot to improve, a lot of quality to add. [We need to be] much more efficient in decision-making, much quicker to open situations up when advantages are there, many more situations to feel when advantages are obtained.
“More control of games, more defensive actions in the opponent’s half, fewer giveaways in our own half, more clean sheets. There’s a lot to do – more goals to score, more creativity. A lot to do.”
Arteta also added that Arsenal’s summer had the potential to be ‘unprecedented’ and so it proved to be. The Gunners have spent close to £150 million during this transfer window, the club’s largest ever outlay on players in a single window.
Mikel and Edu made no less than six signings to bolster the squad with raw talents and potentially huge ceilings, with Ben White (£52m), Martin Ødegaard (£30m), Aaron Ramsdale (£24m), Takehiro Tomiyasu (£16m), Albert Sambi Lokonga (£15m) and Nuno Tavares (£8m) all arriving.
On the other hand, there have been even more outgoings, with a large chunk of deadwood being moved on. However, only Joe Willock’s move to Newcastle United on a permanent deal saw Arsenal recuperate around £25m, while the rest of the outgoings were either loan deals or loans with options, whereas players like Willian, David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi were released.
As it turned out, it was a busy summer at the Emirates Stadium, with Arteta and technical director Edu clearly focusing on revamping Arsenal’s squad by bringing in young players who will hopefully improve over the next few years and become mainstays in the team.
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Much to the fanbase’s surprise, Arsenal’s most expensive recruit is former Brighton & Hove Albion centre-back Ben White. This deal has generated a lot of noise, with the price tag (£50m) being the source of much debate.
There’s no doubt Ben White is a talented player and one for the future, but with Arsenal needing more creativity and goal threat up front, spending £50m on a centre-back was rightly questioned at the time.
However, with David Luiz’s departure, Arteta and Arsenal needed a ball-playing right-sided centre-back to fill the Brazilian’s void, and in Ben White they have landed a 23-year-old with huge potential. The England international is excellent with the ball, has good distribution, reads the game well and seems a perfect fit for Mikel Arteta’s system.
In Albert Sambi Lokonga (£15m), I genuinely feel Arsenal have a gem on their hands. Lokonga was not only referred by Thierry Henry when he was the Assistant Manager to Roberto Martínez for the Belgium national team but also by RSC Anderlecht head coach and Arteta’s good friend, Vincent Kompany.
The 21-year-old is of a similar mould to a particular Thomas Partey and the Gunners might look at him as a long-term replacement for the Ghanaian. Based on early glimpses, his vision and passing range is very good, while his positioning can be worked on. But the most appealing aspect of his play is his ability to absorb pressure and come out of tight situations with the ball at his feet.
Nuno Tavares, another backup signing, came for a relatively modest £8m fee from Portuguese club SL Benfica. The 21-year-old is the perfect alternative for Kieran Tierney. Tavares has all the attributes of the Scotland international – his ability to overlap down the left flank and his ability to ping in crosses from wide areas.
Martin Ødegaard, meanwhile, was always Arteta’s No. 1 priority following his impressive loan spell last season. The Norwegian captain has guile, movement and presence of mind; couple that with his exceptional vision and passing ability and there’s no one in the Arsenal squad to match his profile.
The 22-year-old is expected to link up with Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka behind the centre-forward, something that could help unlock Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as with Ødegaard’s technical presence and ability to tie up the front four, it will release the Gabonese from his link-up duties and enable him to run in behind opposition defenders.
It is clear and for all to see how obsessed Mikel Arteta is with playing out from the back; whether we like it or not, whether we are comfortable with it or not, this is his system. And for a large part of last season, the Arsenal #1 goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, was found wanting with his ball distribution, especially when playing out from the back, and the Arsenal fanbase was quite vocal about it. Harsh in some ways on the 29-year-old, but we have seen many top shot-stoppers discarded for their poor ability with the feet.
Aaron Ramsdale (£24m) is brought in to provide direct competition to Leno for that #1 jersey. In his last two campaigns in the Premier League with Bournemouth and Sheffield United, the England international has let in 127 goals.
But to put things into perspective, the 23-year-old had horrible defences in front of him and what people failed to spot was his ability with his feet. Ramsdale has good vision and a great distribution, as evident with his debut performance against West Brom in the Carabao Cup. Albeit against a weaker opponent, the striking difference was with the ease with which Arsenal were able to play out from the back and transition the play quicker up the pitch. If given a year, Ramsdale can easily dislodge Leno as the Arsenal #1.
Arsenal’s last summer signing was confirmed during the final hour before Tuesday’s 11 pm deadline, which saw Takehiro Tomiyasu (£16m) joining from Bologna on a four-year deal. The Japan international has signed as a right-back and will likely be Arteta’s first choice for that position, but he is also someone who can operate as a centre-back and a left-back; his two-footedness brings that added versatility to the Arsenal backline.
Moreover, Tomiyasu fits into Arteta’s philosophy of a right-back who can operate as the third centre-back, but when needed, can also bob up the pitch and contribute in the attacking third.
A major clear-out was expected at the Emirates Stadium this summer and that did happen to a certain extent, with a large portion of last season’s team moving on. But what hurt was the inability to move on saleable assets only due to the hefty wages offered to them in the first place by the previous regime.
Most of Arsenal’s outgoing deals consisted of players getting released or players leaving on loan. And it was not until very late in the window when Joe Willock secured his £25m move to Newcastle following his sensational loan spell at Tyneside that Arsenal made any significant money on their outgoings.
David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, the German being a £35m signing, were released, as the latter’s high wages meant the club were unable to find any suitors for the former World Cup winner, while the others went out on loan. Some of the loanees, such as (Konstantinos Mavrapanos) who joined Stuttgart and Mattéo Guendouzi (who joined Marseille), have options included in their contracts to make their deals permanent should the players meet those clauses during their time away.
Provided Stuttgart do not get relegated from the Bundesliga this season, Arsenal will recoup around £5m for Mavrapavos, while Guendouzi’s deal will see Arsenal earn around £10m from his sale next summer. Meanwhile, after two turbulent seasons in North London, Lucas Torreira finally moved back to Italy with a £1.45m loan move to Fiorentina, with the Italian club having the option to make the deal permanent next summer for around £13m.
William Saliba and Héctor Bellerín went out on simple loan deals with no option to buy. Bellerín’s move was completed on deadline day and he was joined by Reiss Nelson and Alex Rúnarsson in heading out of the Emirates. Nelson signed a one-year contract extension which will keep him at Arsenal till 2023, before completing his move to Feyenoord, while Rúnarsson joined Belgian club OH Leuven on a season-long loan.
However, the most notable outgoing has to be Willian, who joined Brazilian club Corinthians. Having joined last season on a free transfer, the Brazilian was on a bumper contract (£240k-a-week) which still had two years remaining. Following a disastrous first season at the club, he agreed, after holding talks with Arteta and Edu, to cancel his contract early so he could join Corinthians on a free transfer. In doing so, Willian is believed to have saved the Gunners around £20.5m in wages over the course of the next two years.
Arsenal were hopeful of moving on some other players during the summer, including Eddie Nketiah. They had a deal (£12m) agreed with Crystal Palace for the striker, but the move failed to materialise due to disagreements over personal terms.
Granit Xhaka was close to joining Roma, but the Italian club refused to meet Arsenal’s asking price of around £18m, and with just a year remaining after this season, Arsenal were quick to tie him down on a long-term contract to protect his resale value.
Defender Sead Kolašinac was available all summer, but his deal with Turkish club Fenerbahçe collapsed as his wages – which are around £100,000-a-week – put the club off. However, the Bosnia and Herzegovina international is now likely to see out his final year at Arsenal before leaving on a free transfer next summer.
Last season, Mikel Arteta and Edu were successful in securing new long-term contracts for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, and Rob Holding. This season, too, some of Arsenal’s best business has been tying down players like Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney. Both players are key to Arteta’s future plans and have agreed on new five-year deals during the transfer window.
Prior to signing his new contract, Emile Smith Rowe was subjected to interest from Aston Villa. The Gunners rejected multiple bids from the Midlanders following Jack Grealish’s £100m move to Manchester City. However, there was never any temptation of cashing in on the academy graduate and all doubts were cleared when Emile was handed the iconic #10 jersey with his new five-year contract.
Granit Xhaka also penned a new deal with the Gunners after his move to AS Roma collapsed. With only two years left on his contract, Edu and Mikel tied down the Swiss captain till 2024, but it won’t be a surprise if he’s moved on next summer for a better and younger replacement.
Whilst I am not here to deny the shortcomings of the manager, his stubbornness or some of his bizarre selection calls, I still hope Arteta will learn on the job and find a solution, and that solution is not so hard to see. I know he may never have the luxury of a fully fit squad, but if he has that after the international break, then barring two decisions, the team picks itself and the first XI is easily a top 6 side.
The players the fans are moaning about and disillusioned with are or should be the squad players we have to call on when required and not those we rely on. As I have emphasised in my previous articles, to have Holding, with his experience and improvement, as a reserve centre-back is not at all a bad position to be in. Similarly, to have Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel Martinelli and Nicholas Pépé as impact subs, who could change a game, would be the envy of many in the Premier League.
So, come Norwich at home after the international break, this could be the side that takes the field, and the players who have frustrated and are not consistently good enough, the likes of Holding, Callum Chambers, Pépé and Xhaka, can be experienced squad options if not stalwarts. In addition, this fluid three behind Aubameyang can play to his strengths, meaning he will not have to do as much centre-forward link-up play as seen previously last season.
Is it all rosy in the Arsenal garden? No, quite obviously it isn’t. But it is so far from being as bleak and withered as many would suggest. The first-choice flowers are already in the garden and ready to bloom and there are some new saplings ready to burst through.
The question, however, remains whether Arteta proves to be the right gardener to tend to these flowers ready to bloom, or is there a better gardener out there who could walk in and reap the rewards for years to come. It remains to be seen.