Assessing Arsenal’s squad after the summer transfers

Arsenal addressed weaknesses in the squad by signing a centerback, Mustafi, and a forward, Perez, in the final days of the summer transfer window. It doesn’t make up for the fact that those key positions were understaffed on opening day, but at least the Gunners improved their chances of finishing in the Top 4 of the Premier League.

Arsenal Mustafi

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

Premier League rules allow a maximum of 25 players per squad, excluding U21 players. Of those 25 players over 21, there can only be a maximum of 17 players not homegrown. Loaning out Campbell to Portuguese club Sporting cut the number of overseas players over 21 to 16. We still have 8 homegrown players despite letting Wilshere go to Bournemouth on a season-long loan. Among the U21 players, Chambers was loaned out to Middlesbrough while German club Bremen signed Gnabry for about 4 million pounds. The presence of five U21 players explains why we can afford to have 29 players in the current squad.

Here’s how the squad looks like at this stage of the season:

Goalkeepers: Cech, Ospina, Martinez (HG).

Leftbacks: Monreal, Gibbs (HG).

Centerbacks: Koscielny, Paulista, Mertesacker, Mustafi, Holding (U21).

Rightbacks: Bellerin (U21), Debuchy, Jenkinson (HG).

Defensive midfielders: Xhaka, Coquelin (HG), Elneny.

All-around midfielders: Ramsey (HG), Cazorla.

Playmaker: Ozil.

Left wingers: Sanchez, Iwobi (U21), Reine-Adelaide (U21).

Strikers: Giroud, Perez, Welbeck (HG), Sanogo, Akpom (U21).

Right wingers: Walcott (HG), Oxlade-Chamberlain (HG).

The Debuchy case

In goal, we have the same situation as last season with Cech the obvious starter and Ospina a solid second choice. If Cech or Ospina gets injured, Martinez would be the back-up option. The main concern about Cech is whether he has improved his ability to stop long-range shots. Ospina does not have Cech’s ability to command the area on set pieces but he has quicker legs, which means that he’s more likely to claim any ball outside the area or win 50-50 challenges.

At leftback, Monreal is the regular starter, not because of outstanding performances but because Gibbs has stagnated in his development. The few times Gibbs had the chance to prove himself, he was let down by lapses of concentration. Of course, very few clubs have a decent back-up option like Gibbs. But in the next couple of years, the staff may want to sign a youngster with greater potential than Gibbs to replace Monreal when the Spaniard will lose a step. Leicester leftback Chilwell has been linked to Arsenal this summer.

At rightback, I think we could have improved the chemistry in the dressing room by shipping out Debuchy, who can’t seriously challenge Bellerin for a starting spot. Jenkinson won’t return from injury before October but in the worst-case scenario, Holding or even Coquelin could have deputized on the right flank. Debuchy is obviously a burden on the club’s payroll since he is past his prime and still has three years left on his contract.

Can Ozil stay fit?

At centerback, the Gunners have finally acknowledged that Mertesacker was too slow and that Paulista was a dodgy defender by signing Holding and Mustafi. Of the five centerbacks, only Koscielny is a safe starter. I remember Koscielny was a reckless defender when he joined Arsenal, collecting two red cards in his first season. Credit to him for becoming more mature and improving his decision-making. In a normal club, Mertesacker would have been transferred this summer, but the manager will probably let the German stay until the end of his contract to reward him for his loyalty.

On paper, Mustafi should be Koscielny’s main partner in the heart of the Arsenal defense. However, there are question marks about his adjustment to the Premier League and how his partnership with Koscielny will gel. Mustafi was part of Everton’s football academy but he never played any league game. Holding will probably play in the League Cup and the FA Cup to continue his development. A five-month loan could also be a possibility when Mertesacker returns from injury.

In midfield, the Gunners are a bit weaker since Wilshere joined Bournemouth. They signed Elneny to replace Flamini and then Xhaka to replace Arteta, but nobody to fill Rosicky’s shoes. Everything depends on Ozil staying fit. If Ozil gets injured, Cazorla seems the natural alternative in the hole, but at 31 the Spaniard is much less prolific than in his first season at the club. Iwobi can also deputize but at 20 he’s too inconsistent for such a demanding position. Wilshere would have been a better option than Cazorla for the playmaking role because he can score with long-range strikes or close-range finishes.

Iwobi’s versatility

Basically, there are six midfielders for three starting spots. The interesting part is that they have different profiles. Coquelin is the only real ballwinner, Xhaka is a pure pace-setter like Pirlo or Kroos, Ramsey is the typical box-to-box player and Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world. Elneny is pretty much a utility midfielder who can play anywhere without excelling in any position. Cazorla started his Arsenal career as an attacking midfielder before the manager reconverted him into a deep-lying playmaker to make up for his declining pace. Those different profiles mean that Wenger can field an attacking midfield like the one against Watford (Xhaka, Cazorla, Ozil) or a defensive one like the one against Liverpool (Coquelin, Elneny, Ramsey).

Sanchez is the king of the left wing, leaving only the leftovers to Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide. I’m not sure why Reine-Adelaide got promoted to the first team since he didn’t show much in the pre-season matches. Iwobi should have his share of playing time after making his league debut last season. The Nigeria international’s versatility should help him come off the bench when Sanchez or Ozil will need some rest.

On the right wing, the situation is much clearer since Gnabry’s departure and Campbell’s loan deal. Walcott is a bigger goal threat than Oxlade-Chamberlain while the Ox has better dribbling and passing skills than Walcott. I think the manager has given up on the idea of using Walcott as a lone striker since he feels uncomfortable playing back to goal. Walcott is aware of the competition and it’s no coincidence if he has increased his work-rate lately.

Cheaper & younger than Vardy

Up front, it’s a messy situation since we have five centerforwards. Welbeck is sidelined until next year, while Sanogo and Akpom haven’t been loaned out. Maybe the two youngsters will play in the League Cup before joining a Championship side in January. Or maybe the manager thinks Sanogo and Akpom can still develop by playing in the U23 team.

Quality, and not quantity, is the real issue here. The staff improved Arsenal’s chances of scoring more goals by signing Perez. The former Deportivo striker is pretty much a Vardy type of player, a late bloomer with tremendous pace and work-rate, but not the complete package like Henry or Van Persie, who were fast, had power and great technique and could be dominant in the air.

Obviously, signing Perez is better than nothing. Giroud scores 15 league goals per season in average, which is decent but not in the same class as Aguero, about 25 league goals per season, or even Kane. Perez will be a better striking option for counterattacks while Giroud will be the top choice against defenders struggling in the air. Tactically, Perez could even be used as a second striker in a 4-4-2 system since his link-up play is better than Walcott’s. Hopefully, Perez will strike a better understanding with Giroud than Sanchez did. The poor relationship on the pitch between Giroud and Sanchez explained in part Arsenal’s offensive difficulties last season.

Champions League tactics

For those who love tactics, here’s how Arsenal could line up this season:

* A 4-4-2 system with a diamond midfield is quite unusual nowadays, but that’s how AC Milan won the Champions League in 2003.

           Inzaghi     Shevchenko                                                      Sanchez   Giroud

                     Rui Costa                                                                                Ozil

               Seedorf       Gattuso                                                    Coquelin     Ramsey

                          Pirlo                                                                                   Xhaka

Maldini   Nesta   Costacurta   Kaladze                   Monreal   Koscielny   Mustafi   Bellerin

                          Dida                                                                                    Cech

* AC Milan enjoyed even more control of the midfield in 2007 with a 4-3-2-1 formation that had the shape of a Christmas tree.

                           Inzaghi                                                                   Perez

                 Seedorf   Kaka                                                         Cazorla   Ozil

      Ambrosini   Pirlo   Gattuso                                  Coquelin   Xhaka   Ramsey

Jankulovski Maldini Nesta Oddo                  Monreal   Koscielny   Mustafi   Bellerin

                             Dida                                                                      Cech

* Barcelona won every competition in the 2008-2009 season with an inverted pyramid midfield in a 4-3-3 system.

                          Eto’o                                                                            Perez

Henry                                 Messi                       Sanchez                             Oxlade-Chamberlain

                   Iniesta     Xavi                                                          Cazorla       Ozil

                      Busquets                                                                          Xhaka

Sylvinho   Pique   Toure   Puyol                        Monreal    Koscielny    Mustafi    Bellerin

                        Valdes                                                                              Cech

 * The only time Chelsea won the Champions League was in 2012. It wasn’t even the best Blues team of all time, but they proved efficient in a 4-3-3 formation with a pyramid midfield.

                  Drogba                                                                       Giroud

Bertrand                          Kalou                        Sanchez                                     Walcott

                   Mata                                                                              Ozil

           Mikel    Lampard                                                      Xhaka     Ramsey

Cole   Cahill   Luiz   Bosingwa                       Monreal   Koscielny   Mustafi   Bellerin

                  Cech                                                                                Cech

 * Heynckes managed to achieve what neither Van Gaal nor Guardiola could do with Bayern Munich by leading the German club to Champions League glory in 2013 with an attacking 4-4-2 system:

              Mandzukic   Muller                                                        Giroud    Perez

Ribery                                     Robben                   Sanchez                         Oxlade-Chamberlain

      Schweinsteiger   Martinez                                                    Xhaka     Cazorla

Alaba     Dante     Boateng     Lahm                     Monreal     Koscielny     Mustafi     Bellerin

                       Neuer                                                                                 Cech

 * Last season, Real Madrid played less attractive football than under Ancelotti but they still won the top European competition with a 4-3-3 formation.

Ronaldo         Benzema         Bale                        Sanchez                Giroud                  Perez

                 Kroos   Modric                                                                Xhaka     Ozil

                     Casemiro                                                                         Coquelin

Marcelo   Pepe   Ramos   Carjaval                       Monreal    Koscielny    Mustafi    Bellerin

                        Navas                                                                                Cech

Are systems overrated?

Managers often say that systems are not important and that what really matters is the players’ movement on the pitch. That’s true to a certain extent. If we take Arsenal’s best starting lineup from last season (Cech; Bellerin, Paulista, Koscielny, Monreal; Cazorla, Coquelin; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez; Giroud), we can make it fit pretty much any formation.

* Here’s Arsenal’s traditional 4-2-3-1 system with Ramsey on the right wing, and Cazorla and Coquelin shielding the back four:

                              Giroud

Sanchez                 Ozil                  Ramsey

                   Coquelin   Cazorla

Monreal   Koscielny   Paulista   Bellerin

                               Cech

* When the Gunners dominate possession, Cazorla moves forward to pull the strings with Ozil. The initial 4-2-3-1 formation turns into a 4-3-3 with an inverted pyramid midfield:

Sanchez              Giroud              Ramsey

                     Cazorla       Ozil

                            Coquelin

Monreal   Koscielny   Paulista   Bellerin

                                Cech

* When Bellerin and Monreal both roam forward, Ramsey makes his deep runs in the final third, Koscielny and Paulista get closer to the flanks, and Coquelin covers Cazorla, it looks like a 3-4-3 formation:

           Sanchez   Giroud   Ramsey

Monreal      Cazorla      Ozil      Bellerin

       Koscielny   Coquelin   Paulista

                              Cech

* When Sanchez cuts inside to play like a second striker and Ramsey drifts inside to combine with Cazorla and Ozil, then it becomes a 4-4-2 system with a diamond midfield:

                   Sanchez    Giroud

                                Ozil

                   Cazorla      Ramsey

                            Coquelin

Monreal   Koscielny   Paulista   Bellerin

                               Cech

* When Ozil plays like a second striker, it looks more like the traditional 4-4-2 system with two wingers:

                    Giroud         Ozil

Sanchez                                        Ramsey

                   Coquelin   Cazorla

Monreal   Koscielny   Paulista   Bellerin

                               Cech

* You can also have the weird Christmas tree formation when Ramsey and Sanchez both join the midfield to win the ball back:

                              Giroud

                      Sanchez     Ozil

         Cazorla    Coquelin    Ramsey

Monreal   Koscielny   Paulista   Bellerin

                               Cech

Top 4 predictions

The club has spent close to 100 million pounds this summer, more than in any other transfer window. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the board will reinvest as much money as possible in the squad to turn Arsenal into a serious contender in the next few years.

Remember, the club spent more than 80 million pounds in the summer of 2014 to sign Sanchez, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy and Chambers. Some fans started believing that the Gunners could finally compete with the big clubs in the transfer market. But the following summer, only Cech joined the first team, which meant that Arsenal had already spent a big chunk of its 2015 transfer budget the previous year.

So I will just wait and see what the Gunner do in the summer of 2017 before drawing any conclusion on the club’s ambitions. I am aware that Arsenal can’t splurge like the two Manchesters, who spent more than 150 million pounds each this summer. But commercial revenue and prize money from the Premier League and the Champions League usually give you an idea of what a club can reasonably spend.

I initially predicted that Arsenal would finish outside the Top 4 this season. Late reinforcements with the arrivals of Perez and Mustafi lead me to think that the Gunners have a good chance of making the Top 4 with Chelsea and the two Manchesters. Only a disaster would prevent the Blues from securing a Champions League spot since they don’t play in any European competition this season.

The Citizens and the Red Devils should finish ahead of Arsenal on paper because they are the two obvious favorites for the league title. How far they go in European competitions could have an impact on their domestic performances. I guess Tottenham and Liverpool will be Arsenal’s main rivals for the last Champions League spots. The Reds are still inconsistent in their performances while Spurs lack a bit of depth to fight on every front.

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