English Premier League

Solving the Almost Impossible Arsenal Puzzle

While I grew up as a United fan, I’ve had a soft spot for Arsenal FC because my father has been a die-hard Gooner. I remember as a child, I asked him why he supported Arsenal and told me that during his National Service, he served as an Artilleryman and since he was a gunner himself, it felt right to support the Gunners.

Replacing a manager who has spent over a decade at a club is by no means an easy feat. Just look at the slew of managers that took charge of Manchester United after Sir Alex’s retirement. However, following Arsene Wenger provides its own unique challenge. It would be fair to say that the Frenchman had lost the plot a few seasons before his departure in 2018. When he left, Unai Emery inherited a squad in shambles. He tried to improve that squad and repair the damage that Wenger had done, but in truth, he needed time to rebuild the team in his image.

This season it became clear that Arsenal cannot rival their opponents in the transfer budget department. While Nicholas Pepe came in for a whopping 72 million pounds, and Gabriel Martinelli seems like an absolute bargain for 6 million pounds, they haven’t done much to address the primary area of concern for the team – the defence. This has been a long-standing issue for Arsenal that stretches back to the early 2010s during the Wenger years. It is surprisingly remarkable that Arsenal have yet to find an effective defence during all those years. I might agree that the Koscielny-Mertesacker pairing was solid, but that partnership was only effective for 4 years. Besides those two players, no one else has stood out for me in the Arsenal backline in the last decade. Sure, Bellerin has exhibited moments of brilliance and Monreal was a reliable squad player, but there were no stand-out performers. The problem is of course that stellar defenders in an already inflated transfer market are expensive, and the club’s owner, Stan Kroenke, doesn’t like to hand his managers a massive transfer budget.

This is the pickle that Mikel Arteta is faced with. In many ways, the circumstances of his return mirror the events that unfolded before he signed with Arsenal in 2011. Just as he was as a player, he joins an Arsenal squad that is in dire straits, albeit in the capacity of a manager. Back then, Wenger scrambled for reinforcements in the final days of the transfer window after a poor start to the league, which included the 8-2 drubbing against Manchester United. Alongside Per Mertesacker and André Santos, Mikel Arteta was brought in on transfer deadline day to bolster the squad, and he did improve the team by bringing in some much-needed stability in midfield. He turned up when it mattered, and Arsenal fans hope he can replicate the impact he had as a player while serving as the club’s head coach.

However, rebuilding Arsenal and moulding them to a formidable team is easier said than done. A club in absolute shambles with a stingy owner who isn’t keen on splurging on new additions means that Arteta needs to be extra creative when solving the club’s multiple issues. There are several ways Arteta can go about fixing the club and here are just a few of them.

Image by Pisut Rakwong from Pixabay

Making Free Smart Transfers to Build The Foundation

Let’s be honest. Most of Arsenal’s signings in recent years have been flops. Indeed, there are exceptions, like Aubemayang and Martinelli, but the point is these players are exceptions. Besides, given Kroenke’s stinginess, it would be wise for Arteta to look at players approaching the end of their contracts instead of dipping his fingers into the transfer market. It is a win-win for both parties. Kroenke saves up a ton of cash and players who can’t perform won’t be expensive flops, just regular ones.

Thiago Silva, Santi Carzola, and Malang Sarr are just three names that could slot directly into that Arsenal team.

Thiago Silva

Signing Thiago Silva could potentially solve a lot of Arsenal’s problems. Arsenal’s defensive woes have stretched back for seasons. Any combination of their back 4 is mediocre at best. Ideally, Arteta should overhaul the entire Arsenal defence and build up from scratch. However, Arsenal clearly don’t have the funds for something like that. Even if they did sell their entire backline, I doubt Kroenke would stream most of that revenue into the transfer market. A free transfer like Thiago Silva, therefore, makes a lot of economic sense. Furthermore, William Saliba needs a reliable centre-back partner and mentor. Thiago Silva would fulfill both roles excellently. Just look at the player Marquinhos has become today.

Santi Carzola

Rumours are circulating that Carzola may return to Arsenal in some form of coaching capacity. However, I feel that the player has at least 1 if not 2 more seasons at the top-flight. This suggestion might surprise you, but I think many of us forget how good Santi Carzola is. Most fans remember a Carzola plagued continuously by injuries, and it became so recurrent that the Spaniard only became a bit-part player at the club towards the end of his Arsenal tenure. Most of us believed that the curtain was closing in on his professional footballing days, and his move to Villareal was a sentimental one – to finish his career at the club where his professional career started.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Carzola has not only been featuring regularly for the La Liga side since returning 2018 but has miraculously recaptured his fine form this season. In 33 appearances in all competitions, the midfielder has notched in 12 goals and provided 8 assists. When compared to the Arsenal squad this season, in all competitions, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored more goals (20) and only Bukayo Saka (10) and Nicolas Pépé (8) have supplied more assists. Yes, I agree that merely comparing statistics of players that feature in different leagues and competitions is an unfair comparison, but the point I’m making is that Carzola still has a lot to offer. Arsenal had a glimpse of his exceptional talent during his first season with them. If Arsenal can keep him fit and healthy, Carzola would be a valuable addition to a team that severely lacks quality and experience.

Signing Carzola makes sense for Arteta. Carzola has publicly revealed that he wishes to play one more time at Arsenal before he hangs up his boots and with his contract up at the end of the season, he becomes an ideal candidate. Then again, there is also the prospect of Carzola becoming a coach or sporting director if he returns to the Emirates. However, since it is evident that he still can perform at the highest level, perhaps a player/coach position would be ideal.

Malang Sarr

While Malang Sarr would be free to leave OGC Nice at the end of the season, Arsenal would still have to pay a compensation fee since the defender is under 23 years old. Thankfully for Kroenke, the compensation fee is relatively minuscule, and Arsenal could potentially have their centre-back partnership for the next decade settled with the French duo of Sarr and William Saliba. Sarr comes in as one of the most experienced young players around, amassing nearly 120 appearances for Nice in all competitions at only 21 years of age, including some appearances in the Europa League. For comparison, Arsenal centre-back Rob Holding is 24, three years older than Sarr. He has only made 18 more appearances than the Frenchman in all competitions, which accounts for about half of a league season. He brings a very unique combination of youthful potential and solid first team experience that you do not find with many players of his age, and he would likely slot right into the Arsenal defense from minute one. The main issue with acquiring Sarr is that he is also being courted by other major clubs, including teams in the Champions League, such as RB Leipzig. It might be difficult for Arteta to lure the Frenchman to North London, but it would be an incredible coup for the Gunners if they could get him.

Focusing on Youth Development

Under Wenger, Arsenal had world-class talent in their academy and opportunities galore were presented to these hot prospects. There was a system in place to groom them to reach a certain calibre, if not to their potential. When you think of some of the academy graduates that Arsenal developed, huge names like Serge Gnabry, Wojciech Szczesny, Cesc Fabregas, Hector Bellerin and Ashley Cole spring to mind. The club has also produced decent players like Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, and Alex Iwobi. Besides Bukayo Saka and maybe Traye Coyle, no one in that academy stands out as a player with a lot of potential.

Arteta needs to steal a page from Guardiola and the Man City management and look to restructure the Arsenal academy to attract top talent globally. Kroenke would invest in youth if it means he could potentially pocket a nifty profit after a couple of years. Arteta has done well to blood in youth players and while that practice should remain, there should be greater emphasis on improving the caliber of the academy prospects.

Clearing out the Deadwood, and Dealing with Auba and Özil

Image by Radoan Tanvir from Pixabay

I’m afraid that Arteta has too many players that are not good enough. These players need to be sold and not be given contracts. David Luiz’s contract extension makes little sense unless he is kept as a back-up player. Even then, his wages are staggeringly high, and such a move makes little financial sense – especially since Arteta is already on a tight budget and possibly needs to cut costs and free up wage space. The same mistake cannot take place with Mustafi and Sokratis because both players have not demonstrated why they warrant a place at the club. Also, it is time for players like Granit Xhaka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Mohamed Elneny to move on from the club. It hasn’t worked out for these players, and they would be better appreciated elsewhere.

Arsenal also can’t afford to take on any more risky gambles as well. Pablo Mari has only played a handful of games, while Cedric Soares has yet to feature for the club at all. Yet, despite this, the Arsenal management have found it appropriate to hand these players lengthy contracts without sufficient merit. Arsenal needs to handle such moves more professionally as these moves cry out sheer desperation from the club.

Then there is the question on the futures of the two best Arsenal players – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Özil. It is becoming increasingly likely that Aubemayang will leave at the end of the season so that Arsenal don’t let the Gabonese international leave on a free at the end of the 2020/2021 season. If Arteta can miraculously bring in some top-notch talent, perhaps Auba might stay. Let’s be real though, it’s a tough ask and it would seem that the pacey forward has set his sights on greener pastures elsewhere. Arteta also needs to make a quick decision on Özil. Even though the German is supposedly in Arteta’s plans, he has yet to feature since the restart. When on form, he is arguably one of the best playmakers in the modern game. The problem is that Özil is so inconsistent that we don’t know whether he’ll turn up or not.

Most Importantly, Arteta Needs Time

Arsenal need a serious rebuild, and perhaps a massive overhaul is the way to go for Arteta to shape the club according to his footballing philosophy. Guardiola was handed a more manageable task when he came to Manchester City because they were filled with world-class talent across the board. It took years for City to reach the point they are at right now, and while Guardiola has significantly improved the team, he already had a stable foundation. Arteta, however, has to establish that foundation from scratch.

This means one thing unfortunately for Arsenal fans: Arsenal need to consolidate their resources and focus on rebuilding. Fans need to realize they are nothing more than a mid-table team now. With possibly radical changes happening before next season, it would be sometime before Arsenal make it to the Europa League, let alone the Champions League.

The Arsenal board and fans need to be patient with Arteta. He is tasked with rebuilding the club and leading it to glory once again, which is an impossible feat. Nevertheless, I do believe that, with time, he can pull it off and it’s only a matter of years before Arsenal find themselves back in contention for European spaces. Until then, perhaps Arteta could focus on winning the FA and League Cups as entry points to Europe. Whatever it is, I sincerely do hope Arteta turns things around at Arsenal.

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