Assessing the outright success of a transfer window before your new players have had a chance to settle in and, you know, play, is a tricky assignment. One can only look at it from a purely administrative point of view at this stage- which areas did Arsenal identify according to our understanding and in which areas did Arsenal manage to recruit?
There is a cautionary tale about judging on any other basis. Last summer Arsenal absolutely needed a high end-product wide player and they bought one at great expense in Nicolas Pepe. It didn’t make the team any better (which is not to ‘blame’ Pepe personally, you understand). We will have to wait and see exactly how the pieces fit and allow all of the variable factors that determine the success of a transfer to eventuate.
Arsenal acted quickly on the majority of their signings. Matri, Soares and Willian were ‘low hanging fruit’ and those deals were concluded nice and early, as was the deal for Gabriel from Lille. I know some have questioned the wisdom of buying two left-footed centre-halves but I think it makes a lot of sense.
This podcast with Michael Cox explains why left-footed centre-halves have become so in demand this summer. Arteta’s tutor, Pep Guardiola, spent the guts of £40m on Nathan Ake to deputise for Aymeric Laporte at Manchester City because he considers a left-footed centre-half as a “non-negotiable” as it were.
Left-footed centre-halves allow for different angles of pass from the back line. When a pass zips up the left flank from a left footer, it arrives in front of the recipient with backspin on it. It also provides a favourable angle for a diagonal pass to the right flank. Saliba, Gabriel, Partey, Willian and Mari all have this pass in their locker- diagonal passes that instantly switch the angle of a move are very important to Arteta’s style.
Given the importance of this type of distribution to the manager, it makes total sense to have two players on the left side of the defence capable of it. Given the comparative transfer fees, it’s reasonably obvious that Gabriel will be considered first choice for the role with Mari as a seamless back-up option.
The future of Arsenal’s defence is beginning to take shape, even if the ghosts of Arsenal’s defensive past still loom. We can assume that Saliba and Gabriel are the intended long-term partnership, with Mari deputising Gabriel. On the right side of the defence, David Luiz and probably Shkodran Mustafi will get plenty of minutes this season while Saliba acclimatises.
Next summer, Sokratis, Mustafi and Luiz are all out of contract, so there is effectively a three-way scrap for the back-up right sided centre-half role between Chambers, Holding and Mavropanos- unless Arteta decides he doesn’t want any of them and one of Mustafi or Luiz does enough to earn a new deal. Otherwise, Arsenal might have to enter the market for another centre-half next summer, as incredible as that might seem now.
The situation at right-back is more difficult to distil. The signing of Cedric Soares is hard to justify in hindsight with Bellerin rediscovering his form and Maitland-Niles earning commendation for his performances. The situation was different with Maitland-Niles in January when Arsenal moved for Cedric of course.
You could praise Arsenal for being proactive in anticipating the departure of a key squad player by snapping up an experienced back-up while he was available on a free transfer and write this off as an acceptable consequence of their proactivity. You could also criticise the club for panicking over a position that, in the grand scheme of things is not a crucial one and that ties the club to a player who they absolutely will not be able to move on given his age, the length of his contract and his Bosman inflated salary. Getting Cedric in can be justified based on the information available at the time, awarding him a four-year contract is very difficult to understand.
There again, you might argue that Maitland-Niles performs better at left-back anyway, leaving Arsenal with two clear options for both full-back roles. Bellerin and Cedric for the right, Maitland-Niles and Tierney for the left. That Arsenal were very willing to sell Sead Kolasinac this summer suggests he does not figure in this future equation.
Arsenal had an offer from Wolves for Maitland-Niles and had they accepted it, they might have been able to buy Hussein Aouar as well as Thomas Partey. However, the £20m they reportedly offered doesn’t represent value in my view, I don’t think Maitland-Niles will lose any value this year. The homegrown player situation in the Arsenal squad is not in fantastic shape, which may have figured in the decisions not to move Maitland-Niles and Holding on.
I do think he will depart eventually, because I don’t see him nailing down either full-back role on anything other than a timeshare basis and I am sure he will come to a stage where he wants a more assured role in another team. Assuming that Saka is primed for a future further forward, don’t be surprised if Arteta is shopping for a back-up left-back next summer.
In midfield, I am certain Arsenal wanted both Aouar and Partey but a failure to sell unwanted goods in a depressed market meant they could only afford one- and even the Partey deal required the unusual step of Stan Kroenke reaching into his pocket according to Amy Lawrence.
It means that Arsenal didn’t get the creator that they wanted, so they are going to have to address the creative deficit internally and I wrote about how they might do that last week. Playing Aubameyang through the middle, as Lewis Ambrose persuasively argued this week, allows them to squeeze another creative option into the team.
While Partey isn’t a creator as such, he can still prove to be a playmaker for Arsenal. His ability to dribble the ball into the final third could prove very valuable. Ball progression is ball progression, whether the ball arrives via a line-breaking pass or a mazy dribble. Partey also potentially fixes some of Arsenal’s issues in the right half-space.
Thomas Partey was successful with 89% of his take-ons in La Liga last season
57/64 Take-Ons Completed
89% Success Rate
No Arsenal CM completed more than 30 take-ons last season – (Ceballos 27)
Data via @WhoScored
— Premier League Statman (@EPLStatman) October 5, 2020
That was the area that Ozil hovered in prior to his exclusion and Arsenal haven’t really replaced his presence, which has also left the likes of Bellerin, Pepe and Willian cut off from the rest of the team. With the likes of Tierney, Saka, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Aubameyang, Arsenal have been able to form triangles and weave patterns on the left that they can’t replicate on the right.
Phil Costa’s profile of Thomas Partey suggests that one of the Ghanaian’s favourite passes at Atleti was a diagonal to Kieran Trippier on Atleti’s right. Addressing the imbalance on the right of Arsenal’s attack will go some of the way to making them a smoother offensive outfit.
In last season’s FA Cup semi-final and final, Arsenal led going into the final quarter of those respective games so attacking substitutions were not required. Had they been, Arteta would have had a host of academy talent at his disposal to try to turn the tide. The signing of Willian gives him greater firepower in that area.
We saw against Sheffield United on Sunday that Arteta was able to bring Pepe on to change the dynamic of the attack and, with it, the course of the game in a way that he couldn’t last season. Of course, it’s difficult to separate the incomings with the outgoings when assessing Arsenal’s summer business.
It’s not their fault that the economy has been badly vandalised by a pandemic but that they had so many players they wanted to shift- and that nobody wanted to buy- illustrates the volume of poor decisions the club has made in the market and on contracts in recent years. Some of these issues are approaching expiry.
Next summer, Sokratis, Mustafi, Luiz and Ozil are out of contract which will free up some wages and some space in a squad so bloated that two international players have been excluded from this season’s Europa League squad. The failure to sell unwanted assets forced Arsenal into the reluctant sale of Emi Martinez, though I think the will of the player was probably the driving force in that move.
Sometimes you can sell a good player on good terms and this was one of those occasions. Given the small sample size of games, I understand why Arsenal couldn’t give Martinez the assurances he wanted and I also understand the player’s eagerness to seek those assurances. C’est la vie!
How good the recruitment has been will be seen in time but Arsenal got a lot of business done this summer (including new contracts for Aubameyang and Saka) which suggests that Raul Sanllehi’s role in greasing the wheels of a deal is not enormously missed. I like that Arsenal took care of the straightforward deals ASAP so they could concentrate on spinning the Partey and Aouar plates.
Had deals for Gabriel or Willian been allowed to drag on for longer than necessary, the resource required to push the Partey deal over the line might not have been present. I would say that Arsenal, again, have a lot of their salary bill invested in late prime players with little to no sell-on value, so there is an urgency for this team to improve drastically and quickly as a result of this summer’s recruitment.