Last season’s FA Cup triumph over Chelsea was supposed to herald the start of something special for Arsenal Football Club and Mikel Arteta. Instead, it’s the Blues who have taken a huge step forward under the influence of Thomas Tuchel, with a return to the FA Cup final one year on and a UEFA Champions League final in their wake. Arsenal meanwhile have spectacularly regressed toward mediocrity, hovering in and around the likes of Leeds, Everton and Aston Villa.
It’s no secret that Arsenal have not been at their best for quite some time now. It’s also no secret that the Gunners are currently in their worst spell in the Premier League era. Over the past decade, the lack of mental strength has characterized Arsenal, and this has never been more true than in 2020-21. Looking at the club’s customary season-end capitulation, it’s becoming clear that their problems extend far beyond just personnel. In fact, for a club of the size and stature of Arsenal, it’s embarrassing for them to be languishing in 9th place at this stage of the Premier League season, possibly facing a season without European football next year for the first time in over two decades. With Mikel Arteta at the helm and very few positives to take away from this season, the sad reality is that the light at the end of the tunnel is showing no signs of appearing.
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Off-the-field and above the level of Arteta, the club appears to be in even grater shambles, with a takeover bid from Spotify owner Daniel Ek on its way. Their appalling transfer recruitment has meant that the Gunners have become over-reliant on youngsters, with four players under the age of 23 their undeniable stars of the season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means Arsenal lack the necessary experience in the dressing room to really provide a different, cutting edge. In a time when Chelsea invested in Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy, Thiago Silva, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, Arsenal swooped in for Willian, Thomas Partey, Gabriel and William Saliba. It’s safe to say that the Blues fared better in last summer’s window, by quite some margin. But it’s not just down to recruitment. Arteta’s handling of other young players at his disposal has been appalling, loaning Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock out when they could have been key players for the team, and failing to properly give Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli a chance to shine. Let’s not even begin to get into the Mesut Ozil saga, as Arsenal stuttered toward the relegation zone in the first half of the season without a proper ‘number 10.’ The team only started to gain traction once Emile Smith Rowe returned from injury, and at the very least Arteta can be given credit for giving the 20-year-old a chance.Embed from Getty Images
This summer Arsenal cannot afford to make a similar series of errors in their transfer dealings. The club has been linked with the likes of Julian Brandt, Sander Berge and Yves Bissouma, and these are the types of players that Arsenal should be considering. While we would love to say that Arsenal should go out and buy attacking superstars like Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha, we have to be realistic. The club simply don’t have the same influence in the transfer market they once had, and will likely have to make very sensible signings in the upcoming window rather than splashing the cash on more players past their prime like they did with Willian and Thomas Partey. Despite the unrealistic nature of these deals, we take a look at the type of player Arsenal should be looking to sign beyond just central midfielders – with an examination of why Zaha and Grealish would be perfect fits…even though it will never happen.
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What Arsenal desperately need at the club are players who have monstrous mentalities, and not the mindset of kittens. Players like Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha are not only wonderful footballers, but players with a cutting edge to get the job done. Grealish has spent much of the second half of the season out injured, forcing him to be stuck at 10 goals and 6 assists for a mid-table team. He’s also won the most fouls per game in the whole of Europe’s top five leagues, with 4.3. These are stats that no Arsenal player can even come close to amassing. Not only does Jack possess technical brilliance and an ability to soak up pressure, but he has that sort of Alexis Sanchez dynamism that the Gunners have desperately been missing.Embed from Getty Images
So too does Wilfried Zaha. Again, Zaha is showing no signs of leaving Crystal Palace, but he would have been a far superior £70 million signing to Nicolas Pepe in the summer of 2019, and probably worth every penny by now. Bukayo Saka is the only Arsenal player who really strikes any fear into the opposition at the moment, and in Zaha Crystal Palace have one of the most revered players in the league. Like Grealish, the Ivorian has also spent time out injured this season, minimizing his goal and assist tallies to just 10 and 2. But Zaha’s swagger and ability to torment an opposition defense goes far beyond just goals and assists, and he is unquestionably the type of player Arsenal should want to bring in.
So although it will never happen, Arsenal need mentality monsters like Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha. Perhaps a more realistic signing would be Yves Bissouma – Brighton’s box to box midfielder who would easily surpass the expectations he’d be brought in to fulfill.
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Beyond recruitment, Arteta and the club will also need to be ruthless when it comes to handling some of their current players and the contracts they hold. The club should count their losses with the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Willian, and spend more time and investment into young players like Smith Rowe, Saka and Tierney. If Arsenal have learned anything this season, it is that their youth are more than ready to rumble with the best players in the league. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have shown much promise for the future with a meteoric rise into proper starters at the club. Not only is this fantastic for those two players personally, but it serves as a practical example for other youngsters like Miguel Azeez and Folarin Balogun to fully step into the first team picture in time. It’s not as though every young player will turn into a world beater, but they need to be nurtured, and given enough time to properly develop.Embed from Getty Images
Players like Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny are stealing that playing time away instead, when not a single other one of England’s top teams would have them anywhere near their starting eleven. The Gunners could easily do with a more physical presence like Yves Bissouma and Sander Berge, who also happen to have much greater defensive awareness than Xhaka and Elneny. Further, they could do with a creative presence like Julian Brandt, who can play in central midfield or further forward with actual quality, unlike Dani Ceballos.
Sadly, these seemingly obvious decisions will most likely not be taken. The club appear to be ready to stick by Mikel Arteta, when Unai Emery was sacked for far less. The fact that they are not willing to pull a Chelsea and sack their club legend in place of a manager with real experience, is further proof that they lack the “cojones” to make the hard decisions that could leap their famous club out of mid-table mediocrity. For now, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal remain in deep trouble, and soon will go from “Gunners” to “Mentality Kittens”.