What went wrong for Arsenal this season; how it could get worse this summer

What’s the most important moment for a manager to make his club succeed? When Deschamps led Marseille to the French league title in 2010, he said 60 percent of a manager’s job is done during the summer transfer market because he can upgrade the weak positions in his squad. That percentage basically means that the signings made by the club have more impact than what a manager does throughout the season, according to Deschamps.

Easter analysis

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Deschamps is a smart guy. As a player, he won everything: the World Cup, the Euros, the Champions League as well as domestic cup and league titles. As a coach, he led Monaco to a Champions League runner-up finish in 2004 and is now at the helm of the France team. So when Wenger only signed Cech last summer, Deschamps must probably have thought that the Gunners were still a couple of signings short from becoming a serious contender in the Premier League.

On paper, the Arsenal squad looked fine at the start of the season. I’ve listed below the players by position with their age for this year in parentheses. Goalkeepers: Cech (34), Ospina (28). Centerbacks: Koscielny (31), Mertesacker (32), Paulista (26), Chambers (21). Fullbacks: Bellerin (21), Debuchy (31), Monreal (30), Gibbs (27). Holding midfielders: Coquelin (25), Arteta (34), Flamini (32). All-rounders: Ramsey (26), Wilshere (24). Playmakers: Ozil (28), Cazorla (32), Rosicky (36). Wingers: Sanchez (28), Welbeck (26), Oxlade-Chamberlain (23), Campbell (24). Centerforwards: Giroud (30), Walcott (27).

On the pitch, it was a different story. The squad became stretched by October with eight injured players as the staff made a massive mistake in the assessment of the squad’s fitness. Wilshere, Walcott and Rosicky are injury-prone players, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain have often struggled with muscle injuries, and Arteta’s form was questionable after a 2014-15 season marred by injuries. Then you add Welbeck’s knee injury, which was supposed to heal by July but was still a concern in August, and you have a squad trimmed to 17 players from a conservative viewpoint. Players don’t always get injured at the same time, but sometimes they do and you have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Overestimating the squad’s strength

The staff also overestimated the quality of a few players. Heavy losses at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea during the 2013-14 season showed that playing a high defensive line with Mertesacker was not feasible. Mertesacker reads the game well but his lack of pace is a too big liability against speedy forwards. At holding midfielder, Flamini and Arteta don’t have the legs to break up plays like Coquelin. And up front, the manager thought Walcott could become a prolific centerforward despite his poor link-up play and limited ability to hold the ball up. Unfortunately, Walcott’s production has been really poor with just four goals in 22 league games this season.

Injuries combined with poor options on the bench explained how Arsenal struggled to rotate and collapsed in the second half of the season. The Gunners with their 11 best players can beat any team in the league, but when they have some key players injured or going through a poor run of form, the second choices simply don’t step up. The season is not over yet, but the Gunners are unlikely to win the title as they trail Leicester and Tottenham by 11 and 6 points respectively.

So why did the staff overestimate the strength of the squad and sign just a goalkeeper last summer? I believe the manager has been too loyal to his squad over the past few years. A younger Wenger would have never given contract extensions to such aging and aching players as Rosicky and Arteta. The reason for his faith in those players lies in the 2011-12 season, when half the dressing room wanted to leave after the club lost Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy in the summer. That was definitely the worst crisis Wenger had ever faced at Arsenal, stuck in 15th place after seven games. The manager needed the leadership of an old-timer like Rosicky and of new signings like Mertesacker and Arteta to restore order in the house.

Poor job by the scouting staff

Maybe Arsenal would have signed a couple more players last summer if Wenger had not been that sentimental with the players who prevented his record at the club from getting blemished. But then you wonder who would have been the new signings. The manager claimed that he couldn’t find the right quality in the transfer market. Cynical fans think that Wenger and the board were reluctant to spend because Kroenke has turned the club into a cash cow, pocketing 3 million every year as a consulting fee. That may be true. Yet, the reality could be more sad than that.

The club has not made any smart signing in the past few years. By smart, I mean underrated players signed for a relatively small fee. I would consider Monreal and Cazorla as good value signings but not smart ones. Arsenal respectively spent about 8.5 million and 15 million pounds to hire Monreal and Cazorla in 2012 and both were already Spain internationals. If we exclude the lottery of academy players like Bellerin and Fabregas, our last smart signing was Van Persie from Feyenoord for 2.75 million pounds in 2004. You could also put in that category Vieira, signed from AC Milan for 3.5 million in 1996, and Ljungberg, signed from a small Swedish club for 3 million pounds in 1998. Gilberto Silva was a good bargain for 4.5 million pounds in 2002 but not a surprising deal since he started all the seven games won by Brazil at the 2002 World Cup while Vieira was not even a France international in 1996.

Arsenal’s track record in the transfer market suggests that the scouting staff has done a poor job in the past few years. Wenger does not need any scout to sign Giroud, Podolski, Cazorla, Monreal, Ozil, Sanchez, Ospina, Debuchy, Welbeck and Cech. The manager can watch those players on a regular basis in the Premier League, the Champions League, and even international events since he’s also a TV consultant for games played by the France team.

Timing is everything in the transfer market

So you kind of wonder where was the scouting staff when Tottenham signed Alli from Milton Keynes Dons for about 5 million pounds last year and when Leicester got Mahrez from Le Havre for less than 400,000 pounds in 2014 and Kante from Caen for about 6 million pounds in 2015.

The French league used to be a gold mine for the Gunners but they haven’t unearthed any gem lately. They have especially missed out on Varane (who moved from Lens to Real Madrid), Pogba (Le Havre to Manchester United), Martial (Lyon to Monaco), Coman (PSG to Juventus) and Kondogbia (Lens to Sevilla). If the scouts can’t spot the hidden gems, then it means Arsenal can only sign the well-known gems like Sanchez and Ozil at the market price or over the odds if there’s some competition.

Last summer would have been the perfect timing for a spending spree. The Gunners definitely missed an opportunity since there will be more competition in the transfer market this summer with Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and possibly Manchester United rebuilding their squads. And selling clubs will be aware of the new TV deal in the Premier League and will therefore ask for much more than the market price. I wouldn’t be surprised if English clubs spend more than 50 million pounds for talented youngsters who aren’t world-class players yet. Remember, Martial cost Manchester United a minimum fee of 38.5 million pounds that could reach 61.5 million with bonus clauses.

In hindsight, Wenger only needed three signings to seriously contend this season. The manager needed to do what Mourinho did with Chelsea in 2014 by recruiting Matic, Fabregas, Costa, Luis, Remy and Drogba. Matic, Fabregas and Costa proved instrumental in guiding the Blues to the league title while Luis, Remy and Drogba were mostly benchwarmers but provided enough depth to the squad. If Wenger signs three players this summer, that may not even be enough to secure a Top 4 finish because a lot of Gunners are getting old and our rivals will upgrade their squads. To put it bluntly, Arsenal would need a massive overhaul to contend next season.

Dealing with an aging squad

Many Arsenal fans have called for Wenger to resign at the end of this season. For the record, the French manager still has a year left on his contract. I tried to guess how his succession would look like if it were to happen this summer, and I came to the conclusion that it could be just as bad as Ferguson’s departure from Old Trafford.

Some pundits claim that Moyes inherited a good squad because Manchester United won the league title in 2013. But if you take a close look, you realize that Moyes inherited an aging squad. Seven core members were in their thirties the year the Red Devils were crowned: Ferdinand (35), Vidic (32), Evra (32), Carrick (32), Giggs (40), Scholes (39) and Van Persie (30). Scholes and Giggs were no longer regular starters during the 2012-13 season but they still played 16 and 22 league games respectively. So you have 6 to 7 key players past their prime.

Among the regular starters, Rooney (28) and De Gea (23) were still at the top of their game. The other players in the squad were less than 30 years old but there were question marks about their quality for a contending team. That’s why Rafael was transferred to Lyon, Cleverley to Everton, Kagawa to Dortmund, Evans to West Brom, Welbeck to Arsenal, Nani to Fenerbahce and Hernandez to Leverkusen. Anderson was loaned out to Fiorentina before moving back to Brazil while the injury-prone Fletcher joined West Brom last season. Smalling, Jones, Young and Valencia have stayed at Manchester, but only Smalling has performed well this season.

The situation is quite similar at Arsenal. We have 10 players in their thirties this year: Cech, Debuchy, Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Flamini, Arteta, Cazorla, Rosicky and Giroud. Debuchy, Arteta and Rosicky have become fringe players this season but Cech, Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Cazorla and Giroud are regular starters while Flamini has already played 16 league games this season. So we have 6 to 7 key players in their thirties, the same number as Manchester United in Ferguson’s final season.

Cleaning up the mess

The only positive is that we have more quality than Ferguson’s Red Devils in the under-30 category. Bellerin, Coquelin, Wilshere, Ramsey, Ozil and Sanchez would be regular starters for most contending teams nowadays whereas only De Gea, Rooney and Smalling would have been good enough for a contender in 2013. There are obviously question marks about the quality of players like Jenkinson, Chambers, Paulista, Gibbs, Elneny, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Campbell, Iwobi and Welbeck. For some of them, it’s unproven potential, for the others, it’s either inconsistency or a lack of talent.

If Wenger were to leave this summer, Arsenal would be in a real mess because our aging squad would force his successor to do a massive overhaul. That’s why I think Wenger should stay at the club until the end of his contract. That’s his mess, so he’s the one who should clean it up. Wenger has always said that the day he leaves the club, the club will be in a good shape. Well, the manager has one more year to keep his promise. That would also give the board an entire season to find his successor.

The only scenario in which the club should fire Wenger is if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4. There would be so much negativity among the fans that keeping Wenger would just hurt Arsenal. A few poor results in the first couple of months and Wenger’s final season at the club could look like Cersei’s walk of atonement in Game of Thrones. Instead of shouting ‘shame’ like in the TV series, the supporters would simply yell ‘Wenger out.’

Assuming the Gunners secure a Champions League spot, Wenger will have to rebuild his squad this summer. The contracts of Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky expire at the end of this season. The club won’t renew their contracts since they are past their prime. You can also bet that Debuchy will be offloaded after what he said about the manager. Debuchy claimed that Wenger never gave him a chance. That’s not true since Debuchy made six starts in all competitions in the first half of the season. That should be enough to make a good impression. Iwobi only needed six starts in all competitions to convince the manager that he should make his Premier League debut against Everton.

Room for 5 more overseas players

So we already have four spots in the squad that must be replaced. The interesting part is that Arteta, Flamini, Rosicky and Debuchy are not homegrown players, which means that the only recruiting constraint is financial. According to the Premier League’s quota policy, clubs can have a maximum of 17 players who are over 21 and not homegrown. We currently have 16 non-homegrown players (Cech, Ospina, Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Paulista, Debuchy, Flamini, Arteta, Elneny, Cazorla, Rosicky, Ozil, Sanchez, Campbell, Giroud). If we remove Arteta, Flamini, Rosicky and Debuchy, that means we will only have 12 non-homegrown players this summer. So in theory, Arsenal could sign up to 5 non-homegrown players.

Let’s analyze every position. Goalkeeping is not a concern since Cech and Ospina are both great options. At rightback, Bellerin is the first choice and Jenkinson his back-up. At leftback, Monreal is the starter and Gibbs the understudy. Centerback is a real worry. We have already conceded 30 goals in 30 league games. That’s six more goals than Spurs, who have the tightest defense in the league. It could have been worse if we assume that Cech pulled off some outstanding saves that Ospina or Szczesny wouldn’t have made.

Chambers is still learning the ropes obviously. I don’t think Koscielny, Mertesacker or Paulista is the commanding centerback that we desperately need. Mertesacker lacks pace while Koscielny has struggled with back and Achilles injuries in the past few years. And both are in their thirties, so we must definitely sign a centerback. Hummels would be a great choice as he only has one year left on his Dormund contract. Athletic Bilbao defender Laporte is a younger option but he has a release clause of 50 million euros.

At holding midfielder, Coquelin is the first choice and Elneny and Chambers the understudies. We have Wilshere and Ramsey as all-round midfielders but Wilshere is an injury-prone player while Ramsey often picks up hamstring injuries. That’s a position the manager should consider strengthening. I like very much Kondogbia. He has a more defensive profile than Ramsey and Wilshere but his physical impact could make a difference in the Premier League. Kondogbia is currently struggling to adapt to the Italian league, whose lethargic play and overemphasis on tactics are simply killing his strengths. Vieira and Henry also failed in Serie A, but that did not prevent them from succeeding in England later on.

Preserving the consistency

Ozil did not get much rest in the playmaking role this season as Rosicky picked up an injury in the only game he has played so far while Cazorla has been sidelined since November and there is no guarantee the Spaniard will play next season at his best level. So the club must sign a playmaker or an attacking midfielder. Iwobi could play a few games in that position but you don’t want to put too much pressure on a teenager. Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke is the first name that comes to my mind but he would cost a lot of money -more than 50 million pounds.

Up front, we need a clinical centerforward. Giroud lacks pace, Walcott is useless, and Welbeck is still a work in progress. I would sell Walcott to have more cash available for transfers. Dortmund forward Reus and Lyon striker Lacazette are among the potential targets. We should also sign a winger. We already have Sanchez, Campbell, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gnabry. However, Campbell is inconsistent, the Ox has regressed this season, and Gnabry is an unknown quantity after missing an entire season because of a knee injury. I wouldn’t give up on the Ox since he’s only 22 but we need more guarantees in terms of end product. Lyon forward Cornet and Rennes winger Dembele are the hottest prospects in the French league right now.

Replacing Wenger won’t be easy. Sure, a new manager could win the league in his first season at the club, but could he also repeat Wenger’s consistency in finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League? As an Arsenal fan, you just hope it will be a thorough and smooth process. You don’t want Wenger to be kicked out in the middle of the season with the club jumping on the first available manager.

What kind of transition?

The perfect scenario would be Wenger retiring at the end of his contract next year and working as a special advisor during the 2017-18 season to guide the new manager at the club. I’ve always felt this was something missing when Moyes took over at Old Trafford. The transition was quite brutal as Ferguson did not want to be seen as interfering in his successor’s work. Who cares about appearances when it’s about making the club successful? Obviously, Moyes made life difficult for himself by dispensing with Ferguson’s backroom staff, failing to realize that he had moved from a small and simple machine, Everton, to a huge and complex one, Manchester United.

There are basically two different profiles among the potential candidates. Proven managers, who have worked and won titles in some big clubs, and unproven managers, who have worked in smaller clubs or won titles in smaller leagues. Wenger was a proven manager when Arsenal hired him: he led Monaco to the French league title and to a Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Among the proven managers, Guardiola, Conte and Ancelotti are no longer available since they will respectively join Manchester City, Chelsea and Bayern Munich next season. Mourinho and Mancini would be an awful fit for Arsenal because they don’t develop youngsters and would therefore waste the investments made in the academy. They also have a history of spending a lot of money in the transfer market and I doubt Kroenke would be happy with that. Blanc is familiar with the Premier League and has led PSG to several French league titles. However, his family seems happy in France and Blanc is therefore unlikely to move to England.

I would love to see Bielsa at Arsenal. The Argentine coach loves attacking football and is good at developing youngsters. Unfortunately, he doesn’t speak English and that would be a problem in his work and with the news media. Simeone has been taking English lessons lately. Would he contemplate a move to the Premier League? Simeone has guided Atletico Madrid to the Spanish league title and to a runner-up finish in the Champions League. The Spanish club plays more defensive football than Arsenal but Simeone has a good record at trusting youngsters and winning titles with underrated players.

The Dutch connection

Among the unproven managers, Pochettino would be a great fit for Arsenal, but as you all know, he’s the Tottenham manager. So that’s definitely not possible. Emery is an intriguing name. He led Sevilla to two Europa League titles. Then you wonder how he would adapt to the Premier League. His only experience outside Spain was not a success: Spartak Moscow sacked him after a few months.

Wenger is a fan of total football, invented at Ajax Amsterdam. Ironically, his successor might come from the Netherlands. Koeman led Ajax and PSV Eindhoven to the Dutch league title and also guided Valencia to glory in the Copa del Rey. He has a very good knowledge of the Premier League since he’s currently the Southampton manager.

De Boer and Cocu are the two other Dutch options and would need more time to adapt to English football. De Boer has a good record at developing youngsters since Ajax has become a feeder club nowadays. Although it’s quite funny that De Boer quickly lost patience with Sanogo while Wenger saw something in the French forward. PSV won the Dutch league under Cocu last season and showed outstanding defensive discipline in their Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid. Koeman, De Boer and Cocu should know how a big club operates as they used to play for Barcelona.

No matter how his career ends, Wenger will remain for many years the greatest manager the club has ever had. It would take several Premier League titles and a Champions League trophy, besides consistency, for a manager to re-open the discussion.

 

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