It is a saying variously attributed to Jack Warner (the legendary movie mogul and not the disgraced football apparatchik), Alfred Hitchcock and others, but whoever said it, it is still completely true: “The three most important things to make a movie are the script, the script, the script”. Similarly, this summer Mikel Arteta’s top three priorities, if he is finally to end the decade-and-a-half of serial under-achievement at Arsenal, are defence, defence, defence.
Mikel Arteta’s Top Three Priorities
Focus on Defence Even if Aubameyang Goes
That is true even if, as is still likely, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leaves the club, in pursuit of the Champions League or at least League-winning glory that his singular striking talents are so deserving of. At Wembley last weekend against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, Aubameyang again demonstrated his genius-level goal-scoring ability, to take the Gunners through to a record 21st FA Cup Final, a record that Manchester United were unable to match the following day against Chelsea.
However, with just over a year left on Aubameyang’s contract, Arsenal will surely not make the same mistake with him that they have already made with Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and others, by letting his contract run down in the hope that he will sign a new one. Simply put, he must either sign a new contract this summer or be sold. And if he is sold, whatever money Arsenal get for him (and in our new Coronavirus-infected world it is likely to be far less than they would have hoped to receive before the pandemic), it must be spent on reinforcing the team’s defence and not their attack.
Arsenal are Stronger in Attack Than Defence
That is because even without Aubameyang Arsenal are stronger in attack than they are in defence. Even if the great Gabonese goes, they are likely to retain Alexandre Lacazette, who is not in the Aubameyang class as a striker and so is far less likely to attract big-money bids. In addition, they have two promising young strikers: Eddie Nketiah, who has already shown, his reckless red card against Leicester City notwithstanding, that he can score goals against Premier League teams; and, even more importantly, Gabriel Martinelli, the brilliant Brazilian whose breakthrough this season has been one of the few things to really excite Arsenal fans. Indeed, it is the severity of Martinelli’s knee injury, which has already ruled him out for the rest of this season, that might make Arsenal seriously consider signing a big-name replacement for Aubameyang rather than the actual departure of the Gabonese himself.
In addition to strikers like Lacazette, Nketiah and Martinelli (once he is fully fit again), Arsenal have wingers, with the development of both Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka (who, besides Martinelli, is the only breakthrough young player this season) hopefully continuing next season. And even if, as so many Arsenal fans and surely Arteta himself hope, Mesut Özil finally accepts a pay-off and leaves the club, after singularly failing to earn the incredibly lucrative new contract that he signed in January 2018, Arsenal can replace his relatively limited contribution. Young attacking midfielders such as Joe Willocks, Reiss Nelson and, after his loan spell at Huddersfield Town in the Championship, Emile Smith Rowe, can fill the limited gap that the German would leave.
Arsenal Used to Be Great Defensively
Nobody is denying the immense importance of Aubameyang to Arsenal. Since he signed for the club in January 2018, at the same time that Özil was simultaneously signing his new contract and apparently ending his career as a top-level footballer, he has been by far the best thing about the Gunners. In short, he is a striker of the calibre and class of the many great Arsenal strikers of the recent past, from Ian Wright to Dennis Bergkamp to Thierry Henry (Robin van Persie, having only ever had one great season at Arsenal before immediately decamping to Manchester United, does not belong in this exclusive club). Nevertheless, whatever money Arsenal might get for Aubameyang must be spent on defence, not attack, because defensive solidity is another seemingly age-old tradition – featuring great players from Joe Mercer to Frank McClintock to Tony Adams – that Arsenal have completely failed to maintain over the last 15 years or so.
It is in central defence that the need for radical improvement, and perhaps radical recruitment, is greatest. Not since the Invincibles duo of Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré have Arsenal had a central defensive partnership worthy of the name. In the ‘nearly’ season of 2007/08, when Arsenal led the Premier League until the spring and Eduardo’s horrendous injury at Birmingham City (a footballing and indeed medical disaster that the player himself and the club, in general, have arguably never really recovered from), Touré and William Gallas, who had been ‘swapped’ with Chelsea for Ashley Cole, looked as if they might provide the defensive security that any title-challenging, let alone title-winning, team needs. However, Gallas was never the same player mentally after that Birmingham match (famously sulking at the side of the pitch as Birmingham scored their late equaliser) and Touré was never the same player physically after contracting malaria on a visit to his home country of Ivory Coast.
Since then, over the course of more than a decade, only Laurent Koscielny has been an Arsenal central defender anywhere near the class required of a top team, and he never had the reliable defensive partner alongside him to form a really effective central defensive pairing. His best partner was Per Mertesacker, but ‘Mertestatue’, as some Arsenal fans cruelly christened him, never had the pace that a top-class central defender required.
Building a New Central Defensive Partnership
So, the priority now for Mikel Arteta in what will be the extremely short off-season of 2020 is to try and build a centre-back partnership that can consistently provide the bedrock for a successful team. As ever in football, consistency is the key. David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi may have proved under Arteta that they are capable of playing well together in one-off games, such as the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, in which they were both outstanding. However, they quickly returned to their more normal level of mid-table incompetence against Aston Villa, when they were part of the collective defensive failure that led to Trezeguet’s winner, which ended any hope Arsenal had of qualifying for European football (even if it is only in the Europa League) through the league.
The irony is that Arteta might just already have the basis for a really good central defensive partnership in the form of two young players, one of whom is already with the club and one of whom soon will be. The first of those potentially powerful centre-backs is Kieran Tierney. The Scot may have been signed as a left-back or even wing-back but, after his injuries have finally cleared up, he showed at Wembley that he can also play as part of a back three and perhaps even as part of a back two in central defence. The second, of course, is William Saliba, the young French centre-back who Arsenal signed from St Etienne last summer before immediately loaning him back to the French club for the rest of this season. The fact that Arsenal have already insisted that he join them as soon as possible rather than playing for St Etienne in the French Cup final is the surest proof that he is being earmarked for immediate entry into the first team next season.
Strength in Depth at Centre-Back is Needed Too
Even so, as Tony Adams famously said, you need four centre-backs (and four strikers) to challenge for the league, even if the league in question is the Europa League. So, even if Tierney and Saliba can form a centre-back partnership, Arsenal will need more central defensive strength in reserve. They may have retained Luiz for another season and might possibly offer the much-maligned (often justifiably so) Mustafi another contract. Nevertheless, the most likely current Arsenal centre-back to be a regular first-team or even squad player is Rob Holding, if he, like Tierney, can finally shake off the injuries that have so badly affected him since his brilliant performance in the 2017 FA Cup final against Chelsea.
In addition, Arteta might also want to consider signing the kind of tough, even battle-hardened Premier League central defender that Arsenal are obviously so badly in need of. It might be a hard sell to some fans if Arsenal were to spend any money they get for Aubameyang on an ageing centre-back from lower down the Premier League table. However, in the long run, it is only by prioritising defence ahead of attack that Arteta will stand any chance of arresting Arsenal’s long-term decline and getting them moving back towards the top of the Premier League and even securing entry to the Champions League again.