After Arsenal’s ignominious end to last season, when the Gunners first failed to reach the Europa League final and then failed to qualify for European football of any kind for the first time in a quarter of a century, most Arsenal fans have been happy to forget about domestic football and instead enjoy the glories of international football at Euro 2020. However, there have been signs throughout the summer that Mikel Arteta is rebuilding the side with a particular emphasis on recruiting players from other Premier League clubs, in an attempt to rebuild a British base at Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta Building a British Base at Arsenal
Goalkeeper and Centre-Back are the Basis of Any Football Team
The base of any football team is the relationship between its goalkeeper and its dominant centre-back. For so long, throughout both the George Graham and the Arsène Wenger eras, Arsenal teams were built on the successful bond between David Seaman in goal and captain Tony Adams at the heart of defence. Indeed, the two also excelled for England, particularly at Euro 96, so many memories of which were rekindled this summer. However, since Sol Campbell, the dominant centre-back in Wenger’s later Arsenal teams, left the club in 2006, the Gunners have not had a really commanding centre-back like Campbell or Adams, let alone a goalkeeper of the calibre of Seaman. Indeed, it was the decade-long failure of Wenger to replace such stalwarts that was probably the single biggest failure of the second half of his time as Arsenal manager.
Any new recruits by Mikel Arteta in goal or central defence will certainly have their work cut out to get anywhere near the achievements of Seaman, Adams and Campbell. Nevertheless, the fact that Arteta appears to be targeting English players in those positions at least suggests that he is aware of the importance of a strong, solid base to his team that is proven in the Premier League.
Ben White’s transfer to Arsenal has finally been officially completed after the Gunners agreed a £50 million transfer fee with Brighton. Although there are many Arsenal fans who will wonder why Arsenal are paying more for a defender whose club were nearly relegated from the Premier League than Manchester United have just paid Real Madrid for Raphaël Varane, a Champions League and World Cup winner, the signing of White should not be dismissed lightly.
Having excelled on loan with Leeds United in their promotion to the Premier League, White then played well enough with his parent club Brighton to force his way into the England squad for the Euro 2020 campaign. He is also five years younger than Varane. In addition, Varane’s relatively low £34 million transfer fee was largely because he only had a year left on his Real Madrid contract and the Spanish giants were determined to recoup something for him rather than let him leave for free in a year’s time.
White Must Be the Number One Centre-Back at Arsenal
It must be acknowledged that a major reason why White played so well for Brighton last season was that he was in partnership with one of the most underrated centre-backs in the Premier League, Lewis Dunk. Indeed, if Dunk, who will be 30 in November, was five years younger, Arsenal may well have targeted him rather than White, or even tried to sign both players. As it is, White will be expected to be the first choice centre-back at Arsenal, especially after the club paid so much for him, with either Gabriel or Rob Holding partnering him. However, Mikel Arteta, who used three centre-backs in Arsenal’s surprise FA Cup success in 2020, might even consider playing all three together in particularly tough away games.
Sadly, with Pablo Mari, another Arteta centre-back signing, probably proving to be the fourth central defender at The Emirates, it almost certainly means the end at Arsenal for the once highly-rated William Saliba, and all before the Frenchman has even played a single game for the club. If he does leave, Arteta can only hope that his departure does not prove to be as disastrous as his decision to sell Emiliano Martinez after the Argentine had been instrumental in Arsenal winning the FA Cup. Since leaving The Emirates, Martinez has not only proven himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League with Aston Villa but was the cornerstone of Argentina’s Copa America triumph, especially with his penalty saves against Colombia in the semi-final.
Arsenal Need a Number Two Keeper Who Can Challenge
The decision to let Martinez leave was arguably Arteta’s worst as an Arsenal manager, which is saying something given his bizarre decisions to play first without a striker and then with a one-man midfield in the two legs of the Europa League semi-final against Villareal. In his three seasons at the club, Bernd Leno has never come close to matching Martinez’s impact in just a few games at the end of the 2019/20 season. Consequently, Arteta also appears to have made the signing of a good second-choice goalkeeper, meaning one who can challenge and possibly replace Leno as Arsenal’s number one, his other major priority this summer.
It must be emphasised that Arsenal are yet to make a formal bid for any of the goalkeepers they have been linked with. However, the fact that the two main names in the frame appear to be Sam Johnstone of West Bromwich Albion and Aaron Ramsdale of Sheffield United is telling. As with the signing of Ben White at centre-back, Arteta seems to have decided that the best way to begin rebuilding Arsenal’s form in the Premier League is to sign proven Premier League players.
Although Johnstone and Ramsdale were both relegated last season, both showed more than enough behind porous defences to suggest that they belong in the Premier League. Johnstone, in particular, was outstanding at West Brom and after being rejected by Manchester United as a youth player and subsequently plummeting down the leagues in pursuit of first-team football, he is still only 28, a relatively young age for a goalkeeper, and could just be Arsenal’s number one for the next decade if he ousts Leno.
Alex Ferguson Knew the Importance of a Good Goalkeeper and Centre-Back
There is far more to a successful football team than a good partnership between goalkeeper and centre-back, but Alex Ferguson, for one, swore by its importance. Indeed, he attributed much of the success of his greatest Manchester United teams, namely those that won the two Champions Leagues that he secured, to the importance of, first, the Peter Schmeichel-Jaap Stam partnership and, secondly, the Edwin van der Sar-Nemanja Vidic pairing. Ben White and whichever British goalkeeper Arsenal eventually sign will have a very long way to go to match the spectacular solidity of those legendary partnerships. However, they could just provide the basis of a new and vastly improved Arsenal defence under Mikel Arteta.