In Emery’s second season at the club, the Gunners have been much more active in the summer transfer market than under Wenger. The transfer business looks more spectacular than it really was because Wenger failed to rebuild the squad in his last few years at the club. Was Gazidis responsible for that failure by imposing a tight transfer budget? Or was Wenger simply too erratic in his recruitment? Only Gazidis and Wenger know the truth, but their record in the transfer market left Arsenal in need of a massive overhaul.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
To understand the huge task that Emery faced, here’s below a quick look at the summer transfers since 2013. Players joining the club are the most important stat because they strengthen the squad. However, the stat for players leaving the club is important too because it shows an effort to clear the dead wood and balance the books.
* Summer 2019: 6 players in (Pepe, Saliba, Tierney, Luiz, Martinelli, Ceballos), 11 players out (Koscielny, Iwobi , Bielik, Ospina, Jenkinson, Ramsey, Welbeck, Cech, Lichtsteiner, Suarez, Asano). Total: 17 moves (or 16 if we consider that Saliba was loaned back to Saint-Etienne and is therefore an option for next season).
* Summer 2018: 5 players in (Torreira, Guendouzi, Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner), 7 players out (Mertesacker, Cazorla, Wilshere, Perez, Campbell, Akpom, Reine-Adelaide). Total: 12 moves.
* Summer 2017: 2 players in (Lacazette, Kolasinac), 5 players out (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Szczesny, Paulista, Gibbs, Sanogo). Total: 7 moves. In the winter, Coquelin, Walcott, Giroud, Sanchez and Debuchy left the club while Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Mavropanos joined Arsenal.
* Summer 2016: 5 players in (Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez, Holding, Asano), 5 players out (Arteta, Gnabry, Flamini, Rosicky, Hayden). Total: 10 moves.
* Summer 2015: 1 player in (Cech), 2 players out (Diaby, Podolski). Total: 3 moves.
* Summer 2014: 5 players in (Sanchez, Chambers, Welbeck, Ospina, Debuchy), 6 players out (Fabianski, Sagna, Park, Djourou, Vermaelen, Bendtner). Total: 11 moves.
* Summer 2013: 4 players in (Sanogo, Flamini, Ozil, Viviano), 7 players out (Denilson, Arshavin, Mannone, Squillaci, Santos, Gervinho, Chamakh). Total: 11 moves.
Reducing the net spend
While Arsenal had an acceptable summer transfer window in 2013, 2014 and 2016 with a minimum of 10 moves, the club performed poorly in 2015 and 2017. The unusual transfer activity in the winter of the 2017-18 season can be interpreted as a correction.
Arsenal did a good job this summer but not an outstanding one. First, the Gunners addressed some of their needs but there are still weaknesses in the squad with a lack of quality in some key positions. And second, only two signings (Pepe, Tierney) look like regular starters who will be part of the club’s long-term plans. Martinelli and Saliba are a gamble on the future while Luiz and Ceballos are short-term solutions. Arsenal will still have to look for a centerback and a creative midfielder next summer.
If we compare with the Big Six clubs, the Gunners made a better effort than in the previous seasons. With a gross spending of £137 million, according to http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk, Arsenal only trailed Manchester City (£150 million) and United (£143 million) among Premier League clubs. Spurs were far behind with a gross spending of £103 million while Chelsea and Liverpool were quite frugal for different reasons. The Reds are recovering from their spending spree in the past three years while the Blues have been hit with a transfer ban.
Taking into account the sale of players, Arsenal underperformed with a net spending of £92 million mainly due to the free transfers of Ramsey and Welbeck. By contrast, Manchester City and United limited their net spending to £88 million and £84 million, respectively, while Chelsea and Liverpool managed to make a profit in the transfer market. In fact, only Aston Villa did worse than Arsenal among Premier League clubs with a net spending of £133 million. The Gunners still have until Sept. 2 to offload players in Europe and therefore cut the club’s net spending.
A fearsome front three
Let’s analyze the transfers. My main regret is that the club didn’t manage to keep Ramsey. The Wales midfielder embodies the values of the club, has great mental toughness and is a leader on and off the pitch. Of the 5 captains that Emery named last year, Cech, Koscielny and Ramsey are gone. The 2 captains still at the club are flawed: Xhaka is an error-prone player while Ozil has a poor work-rate and is no leader. When the going gets tough, I’m not sure Emery can find a reliable leader in the current squad.
I pretty much agree with the sales made by the club. Koscielny is past his prime and was desperate to head back to France, Ospina is weaker than Leno and struggles to command his area in a physical league, Jenkinson is a limited player, Bielik and Asano were gambles that didn’t pay off, and Iwobi has less potential than Nelson and Saka. Clearing more dead wood (Mustafi, Elneny, Chambers, Ozil) would have turned this transfer window into a real success.
By signing Pepe, the Gunners added more penetration and more end product in the final third. Pepe is a better dribbler than Iwobi and Mkhitaryan and much more clinical in front of goal. At 24, Pepe is entering his peak years and could contribute 8 years of service to the club. The addition of the Ivory Coast forward meant that Nketiah needed a loan move to Leeds United to get some significant playing time and continue his development.
Pepe has a different profile than Mkhitaryan and Iwobi. He’s a forward while Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are attacking midfielders. That could be the sign that the Gunners will play differently this season. Assuming that Emery plays Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang in a front three, the offense could look very much like the Liverpool trio formed by Salah, Firmino and Mane. Such an attack would however require a hard-working midfield.
Showing faith in Nelson
I’m not convinced that Arsenal needed to sign Martinelli. The staff see him as a replacement for Iwobi and Welbeck on the left wing, but Nelson and Saka have as much potential as Martinelli. The £6 million fee was reasonable but the competition for playing time also means that Nelson and Saka will have less space to develop. I believe Nelson has the talent to nail the starting spot on the left wing.
Iwobi has stagnated under Emery, notching 3 goals and 6 assists in 35 Premier League games for an average of 0.26 goal or assist per game. That’s a weaker output than the previous season when Iwobi had 3 goals and 5 assists in 26 Premier League games for a 0.31 average under Wenger. Even Mkhitaryan managed to perform better with 6 goals and 4 assists in 25 Premier League games for a 0.40 average under Emery.
It was therefore time to let Iwobi go and show some faith in Nelson, who has the tools to become a world-class player. Nelson notched 6 goals and 1 assist in his first seven Bundesliga games with Hoffenheim. However, he became inconsistent by December with just 1 goal in the second half of the season. The challenge for Nelson will be to show more consistency this season.
In midfield, the Gunners desperately needed more creativity and therefore got Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid. The Spanish midfielder will fight with Ozil for the No. 10 starting spot. If ever the club manages to sell Ozil, teenager Smith-Rowe would then become the back-up option in the hole. Ozil’s departure wouldn’t hurt the club much since his output has significantly declined in the past few years. The German playmaker only notched 5 goals and 2 assists in 24 Premier League games for a 0.29 average last season, compared to 4 goals and 8 assists in 26 games for a 0.46 average in Wenger’s last season at the club. The top playmakers in the Premier League have far better stats. Eriksen had 8 goals and 12 assists in 35 Premier League games for a 0.57 average last season. Even an aging David Silva managed to get 6 goals and 8 assists in 33 games for a 0.42 average.
Lack of quality in central midfield
Last season, Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi were too inconsistent to make up for the loss of creativity since the departures of Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere and Sanchez. It therefore made sense to have a quick fix with Ceballos. Obviously, Arsenal had more urgent needs in other positions and could only afford a cheap solution in the playmaking role. The Gunners should have more maneuvering room in the transfer market when Ozil and Mkhitaryan are no longer on the club’s payroll.
Some fans have mentioned that Ceballos could be used as a deep-lying playmaker like Cazorla. In my eyes, Ceballos just doesn’t have the work-rate to shine in that position. And anyway, Ceballos would be more useful in the No. 10 role because someone must deliver the final ball to Lacazette and Aubameyang.
I think that central midfield is an area where there is a lack of quality and where the club could have done more in the transfer window. Especially if Emery wants his team to press high up the pitch. You need some versatile, hard-working midfielders for that kind of pressing game. The Reds have Fabinho, Henderson, Milner, Wijnaldum, Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain to implement Klopp’s gegenpressing. Among the Arsenal midfielders, only Torreira and Willock would fit into that style of play. Guendouzi still lacks end product. The French midfielder had 0 goal and 0 assist in his first Premier League season. At the same age, Fabregas had already notched 2 goals and 11 assists in 38 Premier League games.
The staff decided to replace Ramsey on the cheap with Willock. I don’t have any problem with that approach. Although Willock impressed in the summer friendlies, I don’t expect him to shine in the big games like Ramsey did. On the other hand, I was disappointed that the club didn’t invest in a defensive midfielder. The Gunners conceded 51 goals in the Premier League last season, 29 more goals than Liverpool. The back four definitely needs more protection.
Solving half of the problems
The 2018-19 season showed that Torreira can’t shield the defense on his own. The Uruguay international needs a better partner in central midfield than Xhaka, Guendouzi, Elneny, Willock or Maitland-Niles. We’re talking about signing a player at the level of a Kante, Fabinho or Fernandinho. Elneny is a benchwarmer, Xhaka and Guendouzi both lack pace and defensive awareness, and Maitland-Niles and Willock are still too raw.
At the back, the Gunners have only solved half of their problems. Tierney looks like the long-term replacement for an aging Monreal. However, the Scottish fullback will miss the first few weeks of competition because of a groin injury and a double hernia. Limited funds meant that Arsenal had to replace Cech and Ospina on the cheap with Martinez while hoping that Maitland-Niles could deputize at rightback for a couple of months until Bellerin is fit again.
The Gunners still have problems at centerback. Mustafi, Chambers and Mavropanos are terrible options, Luiz is a stop-gap signing and can occasionally make blunders, Sokratis is a decent player but not a world-class defender like Koscielny in his prime, and teenager Saliba will only join next summer.
I’m not sure I understand the club’s priorities. Last season, Arsenal had the 3rd best offense in the Premier League but only the 9th tightest defense. It would have made more sense to spend £67.5 million on De Ligt (that’s what Juventus paid for the Ajax centerback) instead of signing Pepe for £72 million. The good news is that Holding is just a few weeks away from match fitness. However, Holding is not the finished product yet at 23. The Gunners still need a leader to marshal the defense.
The summer recruitment gave Arsenal a chance to finish in the Top 4 this season. However, the fans shouldn’t have too high hopes because there are still weaknesses in the squad and the Gunners will likely finish far behind Manchester City again. The disparity in financial resources between Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs logically means that the Gunners will need two more summer transfer windows to rebuild a competitive squad. Their work is all cut out: signing a centerback, a ballwinner and a creative midfielder is the sine qua non condition to have a solid spine.
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