We are often told that football is now a squad game, rather than just a team game, with strength in depth being an absolute necessity for any club wishing to contend for major honours. However, that development has brought its own problems, because managers can be left with squads that are simply too big and unwieldy for them to manage easily, with those players who are not in the first team or near it either openly agitating to play or becoming disillusioned and therefore having a negative effect on the other players. Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta has become the latest manager to realise that he absolutely had to prune his squad. And as the January transfer window begins to approach its close, there are encouraging signs for Arsenal fans that he is finally jettisoning the dead wood, or perhaps even deadweight, in the squad, to streamline it for future success.
Mikel Arteta Streamlining Arsenal’s Squad
Özil Has Finally Gone (And He’s Not Alone in That)
Of course, the long-overdue departure of Mesut Özil to Fenerbahçe this week has been the headline news, although there are surely some Arsenal fans who will refuse to believe that the lethargic German playmaker has actually left the club until he passes his medical and starts playing in Turkey. But in addition to that significant money-saving move, Arteta has also used this January transfer window either to release or at least loan out other players who were no longer featuring in his plans, such as centre-back Sokratis and wing-back Sead Kolasinac. And these winter departures follow the earlier departures from Arsenal of several other under-achieving players, including those of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi last summer, who had probably formed Arsenal’s first-choice central midfield pairing before Arteta joined the club in December 2019.
There has been considerable criticism of Arsenal as a club, rather than specifically of Arteta as a manager, for not generating any transfer fees from the departure of these players. Indeed, when coupled with even earlier departures such as those of Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez for no fee whatsoever (Sanchez effectively went on a free, given that Arsenal only got Henrikh Mkhitaryan in return from Manchester United), Arsenal’s long-established reputation as the most careful operators in the transfer market has been damaged. However, as Arteta surely realised, there comes a point when it is just vital to get players out of a club, even if you cannot get any money for them in return. That was certainly the case with Özil, who at the very least had become an enormous distraction at Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta is Stamping His Authority on the Squad
In effect, what Arteta has been doing through this steady stream of departures is to stamp his own personal authority on the Arsenal squad. Not only has he got rid of most of the signings made by Unai Emery during his short but unfortunate tenure at The Emirates but he has also moved on many of the last poor signings by Wenger, whose Midas touch had almost completely deserted him by the time that he left Arsenal in 2018. The players that remain now are all, or at least mostly, Arteta’s own players, either those he has bought, those he has decided to retain or those he has promoted from the youth team and ‘Youthropa League’ squad.
Among those he has bought are two potentially invaluable parts of the spine of his new Arsenal, Brazilian centre-back Gabriel and Ghanaian midfielder Thomas Partey. Both have been in and out of the team recently because of injury and Covid, but they had already shown enough in their first few games to suggest that they can be the dominant centre-back and defensive midfielder that Arsenal have been lacking since the hey-day of Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira in The Invincibles side more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
However, Arteta has not solely relied on new acquisitions. Instead, he has done what almost all managers pledge to do on arriving at a new club but seldom actually do, namely giving every player at the club the chance to start again, whether they are in or out of the first team. That has been demonstrated most effectively by his treatment of Rob Holding, who was on the verge of leaving for Newcastle United on loan last summer but has now been rewarded with a new contract until 2024. And the much-maligned midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny (who many Arsenal fans thought had already left the club after spending the whole of last season on loan at Besiktas) have also been given the opportunity to prove themselves anew, although they must both realise that they are surely competing for one spot alongside Partey if he is fit.
Finally and most encouragingly, Arteta has not been afraid to promote young players, with Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe almost double-handedly revitalising the side since their introduction against Chelsea on Boxing Day. After their success, it is to be hoped that Arteta will not be afraid to promote other young players into his first-team squad, although the continuing uncertainty over whether the highly touted Folarin Balogun will stay at the club is a reminder that it can be difficult to keep young players happy when they are not being picked, as even Alex Ferguson discovered with the young Paul Pogba a decade ago.
A Genuine Squad is Emerging
Nevertheless, a little over a year after taking over at Arsenal – a year in which football, like everything else, has been transformed by the pandemic – it is surely undeniable that Arteta is finally building a proper squad at Arsenal, one in which there is genuine competition for places and genuine quality.
The arrival of Mat Ryan from Brighton & Hove Albion as the new number two to Bernd Leno is a significant upgrade on Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson, although it remains the case that Arteta may have made a rare mistake in the transfer market by letting Emiliano Martinez leave last summer. Similarly, for the first time since the days of George Graham, who seemed to collect centre-backs like other people collect stamps, Arsenal have some real depth in central defence, with Gabriel, Holding and even Pablo Mari proving their worth there at different points this season, and of course Kieran Tierney can also deputise there if necessary.
In central midfield, Partey and Xhaka are likely to be the first-choice pairing, and it will be up to Elneny and Dani Ceballos (if he is remotely interested in earning a permanent move to Arsenal from his parent club, Real Madrid) to try and force their way in there. And in attack, the addition of Saka, Smith Rowe and, however briefly, Gabriel Martinelli, appears to have galvanised the two veteran strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose double against Newcastle earlier this week was incredibly welcome.
But Problems Persist
Problems persist, of course. There is insufficient depth at full-back, where Tierney has already displayed a worrying propensity for injury and Hector Bellerin has clearly not developed as the club had once hoped. In addition, their replacements in recent weeks, Cedric Soares and Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who is of course really a central midfielder), have failed to put forward a convincing case for them to be persevered with. Finally, there is the unholy trinity of David Luiz, Willian and Pepe, two ‘Chelsea Pensioners’ (although these days, of course, they should probably be called ‘Chelski Penskioners’), and a club-record signing who has done virtually nothing to justify the extraordinary £72 million fee paid on him two summers ago.
However, there is now every sign that Arteta will address those relative weaknesses in the squad, either sooner (in what is left of this transfer window) or later (in subsequent transfer windows). Having seemingly come through his own ordeal by fire in the autumn, when Arsenal genuinely appeared to be heading towards relegation rather than the European places, he has surely been galvanised and even hardened by the experience. Increasingly, therefore, he is his own man, with his own squad of players, who can finally look forward with real optimism.