Though we may only be a few weeks into the summer transfer window, that hasn’t stopped the usual flurry of transfer rumours that so make up what fans have dubbed “silly season”. However, this summer seems to have presented a new series of rumours, rumours that will likely bring a wry smile to Arsenal fans.
In the past, Arsenal have always attempted to supplement any incomings with one or two older players, in order to add experience where there may be none.
Back in the 2018/19 season, Unai Emery’s first season in charge, Arsenal signed Lucas Torreira, Mattéo Guendouzi and Bernd Leno, all of whom seemed to fit the younger bill of what Arsenal were looking for, but these signings were also followed by the signings of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos – a means of adding some much needed experience to the team.
The following season, Gabriel Martinelli, Nicolas Pépé and Kieran Tierney were brought in, however, following the departure of Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, Arsenal added David Luiz to their ranks too. This was also followed bu the signings of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí in the January window.
Last summer, Arsenal added Gabriel Magalhães, a promising central defender from Lille, but this too was preceeded by the free transfer of Willian from Chelsea and was then followed by the signing of Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid, though Partey had always been on the Gunners’ list of potential targets as far back as Arsène Wenger’s time with the club. Even Maty Ryan joined in January temporarily, though more to provide cover than anything else.
Though Lichtsteiner, Sokratis, David Luiz, Cédric, Marí and Willian were all ostensibly brought in to cover specific needs and as stop-gap covers to get Arsenal out of a tight jam, it was nevertheless somewhat disheartening to see Arsenal signing older players, when younger players were readily available and at lower prices.
David Luiz, Willian and Cédric especially are transfers that will leave a sour taste in the mouth for Arsenal fans given the fact that all three were part of the shady dealings of super agent Kia Joorabchian, however, all the older signings served their own purposes.
Lichtsteiner, despite how poorly suited to Arsenal he was, was there to offer competitive back-up to Héctor Bellerín, whereas Sokratis was the logicial choice as Arsenal looked to replace the stoic professionalism of the retiring Per Mertesacker. The blatant unprofessionalism of Laurent Koscielny, which left the club in a sticky situation, forced their hands. With a week remaining in the window and finances dwindling, Arsenal couldn’t simply dive into the transfer kitty and bring in Raphaël Varane, so they were forced to buy a defender that most resembled Koscielny – captain material, good in the air, decent tackling and excellent passing out from the back abilities, which led them logically to the £8m rated David Luiz.
Even Willian, who’s time at Arsenal has been nothing short of unacceptable thus far, made sense in some way. The Arsenal attack was in need of some kind of experience to lend to the talented youngsters coming through the club’s academy, even if it hasn’t worked out.
However, this summer has seen a rather abrupt change to the club’s transfer priorities. Where before older players were never dismissed and were even admired by the scouting department, it seems now that Arsenal have set their sights firmly on players in the early stages of their career.
Younger players have almost always been the preference of clubs around the world, even before video games like Football Manager came to prominence. Signing youngsters was generally seen as a win-win for the club; they improve, then you have someone who will become a mainstay for years to come and may even fetch a decent transfer sum in a few years time; if they fail, then you can always shift them along fairly easily with no questions asked.
This summer is the first summer without European football for the forthcoming campaign that Arsenal have had for nearly twenty-five years. Normally, this would be the time for the club to double down on the idea of adding experience to their impressive roster of youngsters to get Arsenal back to where they need to be. No doubt, mammoth contracts would have been tabled for Sergio Ramos, Elseid Hysaj and Ryan Bertrand, while the club throws money to other positions, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Though the idea of Sergio Ramos in an Arsenal shirt, particularly an Arsenal shirt without European football, would be ludicrous, it seems that Arsenal have decided to go in the opposite direction in terms of a strategy this time around.
Last season is definitely a season that Arsenal and Arsenal fans would do well to forget, but the few bright sparks in the team seemed to come from the club’s youth talent, rather than through the more established internationals. While Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled for form, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney, Nicolas Pépé and Gabriel Martinelli all stepped up to the plate and saved what little of the season there was to save.
It seems that this is something the club wish to lean into more. Miguel Azeez and Folarian Balogun (fresh off signing his new contract) will likely be the latest crop of youngsters to be given a chance int he team next season, however, they will have competition from the youngsters Arsenal look certain to bring through this season.
Ben White of Brighton & Hove Albion is thought to be the club’s first marquee signing this summer, with Anderlecht’s Albert Sambi Lokonga following close behind. Benfica’s Nuno Tavares is the most likely candidate to come in and deputise for Kieran Tierney and other targets seem to enforce this too.
Though signings in midfield will likely be contingent on the departures of Granit Xhaka, Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, it is still reassuring to see names such as Rúben Neves, Sander Berge and Yves Bissouma all linked to replace them.
Even in positions that Arsenal are plentiful, players such as Odsonne Edouard at Celtic and André Onana at Ajax are thought to be admired by the Arsenal scouting department.
However, the real problem issues for the club lie in right-back and in attacking midfield. With Héctor Bellerín likely to move and Emile Smith Rowe likely unable to hold down the number ten position on his own, Arsenal will need new targets.
In terms of replacing Bellerín, RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams (a boyhood Arsenal fan) seems to be the most highly-regarded among the technical team, whereas Martin Ødegaard tops the list of potential number tens to come in, following his successful loan spell with the club. Even a homegrown goalkeeper to compete with Bernd Leno has been mooted, with Aaron Ramsdale at Sheffield United under serious consideration. No more elderly players looking for a last shot at glory on a big contract in the capital anymore.
The other thing that will likely please Arsenal fans is the versatility of those that have been linked. Ben White’s main role is as a centre back, however, he has also been known to understudy at right back and in defensive midfield. Tyler Adams is ostensibly a right-back, but has spent most of his time as a holding midfielder, even Tavares has played a right-back before covering at left-back too.
Even some of Arsenal’s midfield targets are exciting too. Bissouma and Neves are both capable of occupying different roles in the midfield and will likely be able to deputise where needed.
The creative players that have been mentioned around Arsenal in recent seasons such as Julian Brandt, Christopher Nkunku, Houssem Aouar, Emiliano Buendía and Martin Ødegaard are all capable of occupying many roles either on the flanks or deeper in midfield if necessary.
Positional versatility is a must in Mikel Arteta’s system, as proven last season. When Kieran Tierney was out injured, it was the role of Cédric Soares, a right back or Granit Xhaka, a central midfielder, to fill-in for the injured Scotsman. Though this bred mixed results, it was nevertheless an example of why Arteta favours certain players. Indeed, the versatility of Calum Chambers and Mohamed Elneny has likely explained why Arteta has persisted with the duo for so long.
Given how Arsenal’s formation changes fluidly when in and out of possession, the need for hybrid players has grown. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, Arteta saw first-hand just how important it is to have full-backs drop into the space in midfield when attacking, so as to prevent an overload in midfield in case of a counter-attack.
Given Arsenal’s creative woes for much of last season, Arsenal instead relied on “old faithful” or “19th century football” as José Mourinho once described it in a scathing post-match interview following a 1-1 draw at home to West Ham, which is to try the long ball over the top.
This too seemed to be a smart move. Both Xhaka and Thomas Partey are capable of hitting long passes over long distances with extraordinary precision, so too can David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhães (though not as well as Luiz), these means that the midfielders often drop into the heart of defence to begin an attack that exploits the explosive pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Gabriel Martinelli.
Unsurprisingly, this is something that Rúben Neves has done on countless occasions for Wolves and his penchant for a long-ball isn’t too shabby either. Given that Adams has played as a holding midfielder and that Neves can drop deep when needed, it seems to make perfect sense why Arsenal are targeting such players.
It will be a busy summer at the Emirates Stadium, even without the COVID-19 vaccination jabs taking place there. Plenty of deadwood and, regrettably, fan favourites will likely be shifted, but if Arsenal want to make their way back into European football next season, it seems that targeting youth players is the best way to do so, after all, it wasn’t a bad tactic last season, despite their appalling finish.