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Op-ed

Five positions Arsenal need to strengthen for the 2021/22 Season

Rahul Saha Rahul Saha

For the first time in 26 years, the Gunners will be without European football after finishing 8th in the Premier League and getting dumped out of the Europa League by former manager Unai Emery.

Despite missing out, manager Mikel Arteta and technical director Edu are expected to press on with their summer plans this summer as they look to rebuild the squad.

While the likes of Thomas Partey, Pablo Marí, Cédric Soares, Willian, Gabriel Magalhães and Alex Rúnarsson all were signed on a permanent deal last summer, it is expected to be even busier this time around – with incomings and outgoings expected at great lengths.

Note: The following list of players reflect how Edu and Arteta have recruited so far in their 18-month tenure, Arteta’s tactical preferences, and the availability of the right profile of players.

 

Goalkeeper

André Onana (25)

The 25-year-old Cameroon international can be the ideal upgrade over the present No. 1, Bernd Leno. Onana is a great distributor of the ball, something that has been questioned of Bernd Leno of late, as the German has been guilty of giving away possession rather cheaply while playing out of the back.

Apart from his passing skills, Onana is one of the best shot stoppers out there in the market – an important requisite after last summer’s debacle with Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson that culminated in a horror showing from the Icelander in a 4-1 drubbing against Man City in the Carabao Cup, having just sold Emiliano Martínez to Aston Villa for a measly £20m in the summer.

Onana was suspended by UEFA in February after testing positive for Furosemide but always maintained his innocence, stating he accidentally took the medicine that was prescribed for his then-pregnant wife.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) recently reduced Onana’s ban by three months, to nine months, meaning the Cameroon international will be able to play as soon as November 3, while permitted to start training from September 3 – just like a deadline-day signing. The best part is that the 25-year-old can come for as little as £8m, a bargain for such a talented goalkeeper.

 

Right-back

Noussair Mazraoui (23)

The 23-year-old Moroccan is a ball-playing right-back that likes to link up in the final third of the pitch but is capable enough to handle tricky situations inside his own half with his superior tackling and positioning, something the 25-year-old Héctor Bellerín lacks, while Cédric Soares and Calum Chambers are also unconvincing. With Bellerín heading for the exit door and Cédric’s future uncertain, Arsenal need a reliable right-back for years to come.

Mazraoui is out of contract in 2022 and will be available for as little as £9m. Ajax, a club whose entire transfer strategy is built around selling players on for profit, would prefer to lose the 23-year-old for £9m this summer than watch him leave for free 12 months later.

After starring in Ajax’s storming run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019, the Moroccan is no longer a starter in Erik ten Hag’s playing XI, starting just 16 games in the 2020/21 season, though recurring niggling injury problems certainly played a part.

 

Backup Left-back

Owen Wijndal (21)

Arsenal’s lack of depth at left-back was exposed last season with regular injuries to talismanic Kieran Tierney. There was little to no suitable cover for the Scot as Sead Kolašinac was loaned out to FC Schalke 04 which left Granit Xhaka and Cédric Soares to fill in for him.

Owen Wijndal can be the ideal backup for Tierney. The 21-year-old Dutch fullback is lighting up the Eredivisie with his combination plays, defensive work and attacking runs. Despite being 21, Wijndal has racked up 100 appearances for AZ Alkmaar while being the vice-captain to Teun Koopmeiners.

Last season, Wijndal registered one goal and six assists, making it 13 assists over two seasons from the backline – not bad for a fullback. He also grabbed three assists in his seven international caps.

AZ’s manager Pascal Jansen uses the same inverted fullback model – using them as an extra midfielder – that Pep Guardiola employs at Manchester City, a role that Wijndal has made his own in recent months. With Arteta employing the same tactics with his right-backs, a similar profile on the left flank would allow him to be unpredictable in what has been a lopsided attack.

 

Central Midfielder

Manuel Locatelli (23)

Midfield is an essential part of Arsenal’s rebuilding process who not only have to replace the most-certainly-departing Granit Xhaka but also bolster the numbers with genuine quality. There is now an opportunity to overhaul the outlook of this midfield. What Xhaka offers is very specific, and his traits – both positive and negative – are clear. But Arsenal can steer away from the idea of a progressive passer into a more progressive ball carrier and add athleticism.

Locatelli is a great distributor of the ball with unwavering efficiency and elite vision. The 23-year-old is a good reader of the game, which allows him to intercept and block balls most of the time. The Italian is an elite ball carrier who also knows his strengths and limitations.

As per La Gazzetta, who are usually reliable with Italy-related transfer news, Arteta and Edu are ready to table a significant bid that matches Sassuolo’s valuation of the player; a deal could be on the cards with a fee close to around €40m.

 

Central Attacking Midfielder

Houssem Aouar (22)

Arsenal’s lack of flair and creativity was exposed last season as a string of two draws and six defeats from mid-November to December saw the club plummet to 15th place in the Premier League table. With Emile Smith Rowe coming back from injury and loan signing Martin Ødegaard, the Gunners had a good second half to the season as they recovered to eighth, although still not good enough for a club of its stature.

In one of the many unresolved sagas involving Arsenal last summer, Aouar was heavily linked with a move to the Emirates Stadium up until deadline day. But a deal never materialised and the Frenchman remained at Lyon. This summer, though, after playing 30 Ligue 1 matches where he scored seven goals and assisted threee, the CEO of Lyon, Jean-Michel Aulas, stated in an interview that the midfielder would be available this summer for as little as £25m – a stark contrast to the £55m price tag set last summer.

However, the thing is that Aouar isn’t Arsenal’s first option, and Arsenal aren’t Aouar first choice. A lot would have to go wrong for both parties to see their stars align by the end of the transfer window.

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Rahul Saha

Rahul Saha

An engineer taking the road less taken. I love writing, live and breathe football, and am always up for a tactical conversation.

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