The 2019-20 Premier League season was Arsenal’s worst in twenty-five years. Not since 1995 had the Gunners finished below 8th place in the table and even under the leadership of Mikel Arteta, their form was inconsistent at best. Despite Arteta’s tactical nuisances and potential to be a world class manager, Arsenal fans may be feeling skeptical going into the 2020-2021 season knowing that things have gotten worse, rather than better, since Arsene Wenger left the club. Even their FA Cup final victory over Chelsea did little to lift the fans’ spirit and their lack of Premier League success has had an impact on their ability to attract top quality players in this summer’s transfer window thus far. With all that said, Arsenal are still an incredibly interesting outfit and Mikel Arteta will undoubtedly prove to be a tactician worth examining throughout 2020-2021. To kick off our new Transfer Market Analysis Series, we discuss who Mikel Arteta may look to bring in to strengthen his team and achieve greater success in 2020-21.
THE SEARCH FOR A VIRGIL VAN DIJKEmbed from Getty Images
One of the biggest issues that Arsenal have always had, particularly since the departure of Laurent Koscielny, is that they don’t have a centre-back who can provide the necessary steel, leadership and organization at the back. They’ve achieved reasonable success in the transfer market when it comes to attacking flair in recent years and you can’t help but be excited about a front three that could include players like Aubameyang, Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe. Their biggest problem until they find the right fit will always be at the back, where the likes of Mustafi, David Luiz and Sokratis struggled to make a mark last season. As a result, Arteta and co have been on the search for the next Virgil Van Dijk, but a question remains about whether or not they are looking in the right places.Embed from Getty Images
First we have to mention that over a year ago, Arsenal signed a Saint Etienne defender by the name of William Saliba. Although Arsenal fans will hope that Saliba will develop into a Virgil Van Dijk type-figure for the club, we cannot expect the Frenchman to hit the ground running right away. Saliba remains only 19 years old and made just 12 appearances in Ligue 1 last year. Expecting him to be better than David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi in his first season at the club might be a bigger ask than Arsenal fans hope. What Saliba will look to provide is quite simply greater concentration, focus and defensive awareness than the two mentioned above. Although both Mustafi and Luiz have had amazing games and great times over the years, they are both prone to errors and Arteta’s change to a 3-4-3 formation might have been a direct response to a lack of trust between Mustafi and Luiz as a partnership. Analysts of the former Saint Etienne defender note concentration and awareness as being key characteristics to the 19-year old’s game. At a height of 6’3, he should be able to provide a different kind of strength for the Gunners at the back while fulfilling his role as a key part of the build-up. But Arsenal will undoubtedly have to strengthen their squad at the back if they plan on competing with the Premier League’s elite clubs again in 2020-21.
So who should they sign? Well rumours have it that Gabriel Magalhaes of LOSC Lille is very close to completing a deal. He’s a strong player with good aerial presence and an eye for a difficult pass. Although I think this would be a great signing for the Gunners, it could (again) be risky to think that Gabriel will transform Arsenal’s defense and be that Virgil Van Dijk type of player. Instead of trying to find the next Virgil Van Dijk, I would urge Arteta to go in for quality players who are proven talents in the Premier League. Think of an Arsenal back-line involving James Tarkowski and Willy Boly and tell me that’s not better than any kind of current centre-back pairing they could put together. Tarkowski isn’t the most elegant of footballers, but he gets the job done and would provide the necessary strength at the back to improve Arsenal’s defensive record. A player like Willy Boly, Conor Coady, Tyrone Mings or even a Lewis Dunk could also easily fit into Arteta’s intended style of play. I am not an Arsenal fan, but I am worried that the Gunners are falling into the same trap that they fall into year after year – signing the wrong players. Players that are good, but not great. In order to win the Premier League, you need great players. Arsenal only have a few and none of them are in the back-line. I don’t mean to make it out like any of the above are world class, but they are at the very least players that would be smart, sensible signings to push Arsenal back into the Champions League. At this moment in time they might not get a Dayot Upamecano or a Milan Skriniar. But why not try for someone who is proven in the Premier League, almost as good, at a lower price?
FINDING STEEL FOR A STEAL IN MIDFIELDEmbed from Getty Images
As always, Arsenal have been linked with a variety of players, most of which are the usual suspects whom you might assume to be on the move this summer. From Thomas Partey to Philippe Coutinho to Houssem Aouar, there are no real surprises with the players or the types of players that the Gunners have been linked with. Any of the above would be excellent additions to Arsenal’s squad, but as has been the case for over a decade now, Arsenal REALLY need a defensive midfielder who can boss the game. Thomas Partey could provide a new engine to the team, in sort of a Georginio Wijnaldum kind of way. But what they really need is someone who can both control the game from deep and be a defensive rock in front of the back-four. Five years ago we thought they had found their man in Granit Xhaka, and five years later, look where they are in the table. Other than maybe Tottenham, virtually every other team in the top ten have that type of player. But even Tottenham themselves just signed Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who might be exactly the man they need to provide both the engine and the steel. Even Burnley have had greater success using Ashley Westwood in that role than Arsenal with Granit Xhaka.Embed from Getty Images
Thomas Partey would be an insanely impressive signing, but what is the likelihood of a player like that leaving Champions League football and one of the best clubs in Spain, for a club who has been on the decline each and every year? Arsenal need a Marcelo Brozovic…a Ruben Neves…a Declan Rice…a Wilfred Ndidi! Someone who can screen the back-four, stopping attacks before they even happen; and someone who can control the game, dictating the tempo from deep. Someone who can do both at the same time would be the best way to go. It’s not Dani Ceballos, it’s not Granit Xhaka and although he’s a great player, I don’t think it’s Houssem Aouar. The fact that Arsenal are not linked with a player like Declan Rice is confusing, because he could be the perfect man for both the repairs they need at the back and in midfield. If looking outside of the Premier League, my best suggestion would be Denis Zakaria. He’s still only 23, but plays with the maturity of someone much older. He can break up play, he can slip in between the centre-backs and pick up the ball from deep, and he’d be a low-cost option compared to either of their current targets. They have the creative players in Dani Ceballos and Mesut Ozil (if they want him). They don’t need another. They need more defensive cover and someone like Denis Zakaria could be the man to provide exactly what Arsenal need.
WHERE WILL WILLIAN FIT IN?Embed from Getty Images
With Arteta having greater control over transfers now, Arsenal fans will hope that they will have better luck securing the right players to take them to that next level. At this moment in time it is impossible to predict who they will sign and where they will strengthen, so the only signing we can discuss is Brazilian winger Willian, who should probably go down as one of Chelsea’s greatest ever players. The 32-year old made over 230 appearances for the Blues from 2013-2020 and was a mainstay for the club under every single one of their managers. If a player like Nicolas Pepe or Alexandre Lacazette proves to be inconsistent next season, Willian will at the very least provide that much needed consistency in his play and be able to provide a player like Aubameyang with goal-scoring chances. The Brazilian ended last season positively and was an incredibly astute signing from the Gunners, particularly on a free transfer. That said, Willian might not provide the necessary gusto to take Arsenal to the next level. Nicolas Pepe will likely still start on the right, as Auabemyang fulfills a role on the left and Lacazette operates through the middle. He will be an important squad player, but maybe not a guaranteed starter. Again, if Arsenal are looking to improve on their form in 2020-21, it’s going to take more than Willian to reach that Champions League level.
DREAM VS. REALISTIC LINEUP
Although Willian likely won’t ever play as a number ’10’ for Arsenal, he could actually fulfill the role better than Dani Ceballos and the rather disinterested Mesut Ozil. Lacazette could also fulfill the position if Arteta wanted to switch Aubameyang up top, Pepe to the left and Willian to the right. 4-3-3 might be Arteta’s preferred formation next season, but Zakaria and Rice as a defensive midfield pivot would be an absolute dream for Arsenal fans compared to what they have right now. The fullbacks could also be strengthened, but alongside Willy Boly and James Tarkowski, suddenly Arsenal have a much improved back-four.
As far as the realistic lineup goes, although this is still much improved from 2019-20, there are some noticeable holes in David Luiz and Granit Xhaka. Dani Ceballos is a great playmaker but can be weaker in defensive situations and Gabriel Magalhaes is unproven at this level. This might be Arsenal’s most realistic lineup for 2020-21 should they complete the signings of Aouar and Gabriel, but the question still remains if it’s enough to take them to that next level.
Arsenal are always in the rumour mills at this time of year and the summer of 2020 has proven no different. With Mikel Arteta still trying to build a team that he can call his own, this summer transfer window may be a particularly interesting one for the Gunners. Although signing players like Gabriel Magalhaes, Willian and Houssem Aouar could help the team to improve, the Gunners ultimately need far more if they are to challenge for a place in the Champions League again.
So there it is! A transfer market analysis of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. Who do you hope they sign? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindiste and @DesmondRhys. Also be sure to share your thoughts on which club you’d like a Transfer Market Analysis of next!
Thanks for reading and see you soon!