It would take a turnaround of vast proportions for Arsenal to prevent themselves finishing outside the Premier League’s top four for a fourth season running, with plenty to address on Mikel Arteta’s to-do list this summer.
Unfortunate as it may be that the manager will have a shortened pre-season prep ahead of his first full term in charge, he’ll be the man expected to cure those ailments hurting the club. And although Arteta was appointed halfway through this season, the pressure is particularly intense ahead of what could be Arsenal’s lowest league finish since they came 12th in 1995.
The immediate signs were largely positive after the Spaniard took over at the back end of 2019, but problems both familiar and newfound have plagued the team in their short run since the restart.
Arsenal—who clinched three FA Cups between 2014 and 2017 but haven’t won a league title since 2004—possess the facilities to become great again, but sizeable steps are necessary to reach those heights.
Improve at Recognising and Nurturing Top Prospects
There can be few complaints in having one of the more prolific academies in England—if not the world—but part of the burden that comes with that renown is the prying eyes of would-be suitors. It’s understandable many youngsters are not content waiting on first-team chances given the growing spotlight afforded to some prospects these days. The promise of eventual chances in the senior setup or a rotation of loan spells will no longer suffice for some with loftier expectations.
Arsenal have suffered from their short-sightedness somewhat in recent years. Even though the club might argue they’re happy to see former first-team hopefuls thrive elsewhere, surely it must hurt to see those flourishing assets bloom with little or no reimbursement from seeds they sowed themselves.
Serge Gnabry is the most poignant example of this misplaced judgement in recent times. Allowed to join Werder Bremen for just £5 million near the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign, the 24-year-old has gone from strength to strength since receiving proper chances in Germany and is now a cherished asset with perennial UEFA Champions League contenders Bayern Munich.
One can add Lyon’s Jeff Reine-Adelaide and PSV’s Donyell Malen to that list as well, players who hardly got a look-in at Arsenal but are now surging in different settings.
After all, many a bright spot this season has been gleaned from the success of youth graduates such as Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah (signed from Chelsea’s academy in 2015).
The Telegraph’s Sam Dean predicted that trio along with Gabriel Martinelli—signed from Brazilian club Ituano last year—and Reiss Nelson to be players of great significance in times to come:
The 19-year-old Martinelli in particular has shown that the gap between playing levels isn’t so vast as some would make out in the modern game. He and Nketiah, 21, have contributed 14 goals between them in all competitions this season, while more experienced assets such as Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe—signed for £46.5 million and £72 million, respectively—have only two more between them despite playing far more minutes. Many supporters will hope the space they’ve been given to grow in 2020 is a sign of things to come under Arteta.
It’s possible Martinelli would have had a much more prominent role in guiding Arsenal to a successful finish this season rather than waiting for more chances next term. However, Arteta said a knee injury may rule him out for “months” and looks to have ended his campaign prematurely:
With these conversations there’s always the protestation that there are so many youngsters with only a certain number of senior-spots available, but there’s a responsibility to create the kind of atmosphere where youths see their path to the first team and want to succeed specifically for their club.
Regaining a foothold in the major silverware sweepstakes is also critical to convincing young players they’re in the right place to realise those dreams, as is allowing them to believe they can contribute directly in that regard.
Replace David Luiz
This action point seems like low-hanging fruit when the player was just recently suspended after a calamitous showing against Manchester City, but upgrading on David Luiz now seems as much a matter of character as it does of performance.
It’s a prospect that seems all the less likely to happen this year after Arsenal extended the 33-year-old's contract until the summer of 2021, though Arsenal could do worse than cashing in to prove that was little more than a money-making scheme. The announcement also confirmed Pablo Mari’s permanent move from Flamengo, giving Arteta the left-footed option sought in central defence.
Simon Collings of the Evening Standard pointed to “experience” as one trait working in Luiz’s favor, but Sokratis, 32, and World Cup-winner Shkodran Mustafi, 28, each have plenty of that:
When discussing the challenge of replacing Luiz, it’s a more nuanced debate than just swapping one aging central defender out for another whom you hope is of higher quality or potential.
Managers and former team-mates tend to speak of Luiz as a motivator, a morale-boosting machine whose qualities stretch beyond what he produces on the pitch.
Those attributes only count for so much when a player occasionally lowers morale with his on-field actions, however, and former England striker Emile Heskey told Sky Sports he was “very surprised” the veteran was handed a new deal:
William Saliba will finally arrive in north London this summer after being loaned back to Saint-Etienne for the first season of his Arsenal contract, but central defence isn’t the position where a manager wants their best player to be an up-and-comer. Saliba only turned 19 in March, and though he’s a behemoth in any physical sense, the 6’4” starlet needs more wizened figures around him, particularly during his first year playing in England.
It’s possible the role needs reinforcement on a par with what Arsenal’s wings received with the acquisition of record signing Pepe last year. A defender in or approaching his prime years who has demonstrated leadership qualities for several seasons in succession—along the lines of Sevilla’s Diego Carlos, 27, or Leicester City’s Caglar Soyuncu, 24—will require hefty expense, which is more difficult in a post-pandemic landscape.
Tempting that level of asset is also all the harder without the allure of Champions League football, but one can hope this only improves Arsenal in identifying attributes ahead of prestige alone.
Add the Mythical Midfield General
Even more so than a top-level centre-back, it has been a widely acknowledged need for Arsenal to install a holding midfielder who can live up to the memory of the club’s past anchors. Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira each possess some of those traits required for the role, while there are hints Matteo Guendouzi could flourish, but to this day the Gunners have come up blank attempting to put in place a modern No. 6 who is of the mould they seek.
Jack Collins recently appeared on BBC 5 Live Sport’s ‘The Squad’ and stressed the need to recruit a player capable of shielding the back line above all else:
Patrick Vieira is considered by most to be the club’s benchmark when it comes to that critical link between the back and middle banks.
The Frenchman was a rarity in any period, but again much of the praise can also be attributed to mentality. Comparable Arsenal stars who were in the same team or have featured since had a winning mindset in common. Those such as Gilberto Silva, Emmanuel Petit and even Arteta himself each had their limitations as players, but one would be hard-pressed to name members of the current Arsenal crop with the same level of winning desire.
Cesc Fabregas highlighted as much in March when he told the Arsecast that only Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri “were at my level mentally and technically” in his final season at the Emirates.
Guendouzi is a clear talent in his position, but the theatrics that broke out during and after Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion in June are an example of his immaturity. It isn’t the first time the France under-21 international is thought to have displeased his boss, and The Athletic’s David Ornstein discussed the improvements he must make to win Arteta over. The latest rumour out of the Emirates is that Guendouzi has indicated that he's open to a transfer, which would render any discussion of him as the side's centerpiece moot.
Reports suggest Arsenal are eyeing Danilo Pereira of Porto as a cut-price alternative to Atletico Madrid's Thomas Partey, per ESPN FC's James Olley, two names who could be the latest to try their hand at settling the engine room. Both players are more old-fashioned 'defensive midfielders' in the sense they don't contribute a substantial amount in other departments, though also more level-headed options than Xhaka tends to prove.
The midfield is crying out for a do-it-all talisman along the lines of Wolverhampton’s Ruben Neves or Brescia’s Sandro Tonali, but neither of those players will be within reach for the Gunners anytime soon. Again, though, the priority must be in determining the character of targets as much as finding one capable of carrying out the boss’ commands.
As to whether Arteta can make further progress this season, that remains to be seen, but it won't be helped by the club's upcoming fixture slate. Arsenal's remaining schedule is perhaps the toughest in the Premier League, with matches against Wolves, Leicester City, Spurs, and Liverpool still to come.
Sun, June 28, 8:00 AM ET – Sheffield United vs Arsenal
Wed, July 1, 1:00 PM ET – Arsenal vs Norwich City
Sat, July 4, 12:30 PM ET – Wolves vs Arsenal
Tue, July 7, 3:15 PM ET – Arsenal vs Leicester City
Sun, July 12, 11:30 AM – Tottenham Hotspur vs Arsenal
Wed, July 15, TBD – Arsenal vs Liverpool
Sat, July 18, TBD – Aston Villa vs Arsenal
Sun, July 26, 10:00 AM ET – Arsenal vs Watford