After years of predicting it, The Guardian football writers finally got it correct – Arsenal finished the 2016-17 Premier League season in fifth place. And it wasn’t an unfair fifth either. Though they were only one point behind Liverpool, Arsenal scored fewer and gave up more goals than any of the teams who finished above them.
As James Yorke pointed out last year, six of the clubs will be looking to make the Champions League every season. Even if one of them wins the Europa League, like Manchester United did this year, only five of them can possibly qualify.
Relegation to Thursday Night Football (translation: Europa League) finally happened.
At most football clubs, after years of sustained Champions League appearances this finish might yield a change at the top. Not at Arsenal. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Arsene Wenger and his entire coaching staff will be back for another two seasons at least.
What Arsenal face now is a better coached Premier League than at any point in history. The other big six clubs have more money than ever, and seem to make (mostly) smarter decisions. The rest of the league has enough money to buy serious talent from around the world. There’s even a reasonable case to be made that the other big clubs also have better, more productive academies.
So I found myself asking: How can Arsenal rebuild themselves to compete and win a league in this environment? Today I’m going to explain what positions I think need replacing or upgrading, and identify talents I would go after if I wanted to rebuild Arsenal for the future.
Rule 1) Coaching stays the same for now.
This means tactics also likely stay the same, so unless Arsenal magically adopt a destructive middle block or an aggressive high press, the defensive output is likely to be high variance. This is an unfixable flaw that would have been solved by hiring someone like Thomas Tuchel.
Rule 2) Alexis is leaving. Mesut stays. Ox…?
We have to make SOME assumptions on who stays and who goes, and this is my guess. This means we have to find a way to replace a flexible wide forward/center forward who can dribble, pass, and scored 24 league goals last season.
(Note: this is a lie. This is NOT simples.)
Rule 3) Money is available.
Look, I’ve heard the rumours that Arsenal could run afoul of the new Premier League money rules, but let’s be honest – if Kroenke really wants to support Arsenal financially, he can. He could sell to Usmanov. He could make ASDA (owned by Walmart) the official grocery partner for Arsenal to the tune of £60M a year and pay them back out of pocket. He could plant a magic commercial money tree in the center of Emirates stadium and use the fancy pitch lights to make sure it continues to produce exactly as much money as the club needs to rebuild.
(Note: If you are looking for precise monetary and cash flow realism, I recommend reading someone else’s piece where they personally rebuild Arsenal’s squad via the transfer market and not this one.)
Rule 4) We’re still being realistic.
Wait… didn’t he just say…?
This rule means that we can’t just buy awesome players for infinite money from whatever team we feel like. Kylian Mbappe is vaguely realistic. Messi, Ronaldo, Pogba, etc are not.
Excellent, now that we have lost half our audience via rules lawyering, we can continue on to discuss what we’re actually buying.
Starting RB (sort of)
Remember, Alexis is leaving. This leaves Arsenal with Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud at center forward. (We’re assuming that Lucas is leaving as well.) Giroud turns 31 in September and isn’t getting any faster. He is genuinely great as a sub and has had a very good Arsenal career, but not starter material in this league any more. Welbeck hasn’t played 2000 league minutes since 2011-12. The last two seasons combined he’s around 1300. A center forward is needed.
It leaves Alex Iwobi as your starting left wide forward. We love Iwobi but um… yeah. We’re also not entirely sure Iwobi is a wide forward, but we are definitely sure he’s not Alexis.
It leaves Theo Walcott as your starting right wide forward. Walcott turns 29 next year and unsurprisingly, is showing signs of decline. He’s still good, but he never plays a full season due to constant injury issues.
Interlude: The Funny Thing About Arsenal and Injuries
As someone who has studied this professionally because we really care about it for transfers, I don’t think Arsenal actually have an unusual number of injuries at the squad level. I do think Arsenal have a lot of injury-prone players who keep getting signed to new contract extensions. For whatever reason, Wenger almost never cuts his darlings. He keeps players that he likes around for ages, many of whom have had serious injuries at various points in their Arsenal careers.
Rosicky. Diaby. Arteta. Wilshere. Walcott. Ramsey. Cazorla. Oxlade-Chamberlain. Now Welbeck. Broken legs, ankle issues, Achilles issues, ACLs… when players suffer those, they tend to get injured after at a more frequent rate than before (especially withbroken legs and Achilles problems), and they never go back to a normal injury profile.
The question can be asked whether Arsenal broke them in the first place, but the truth is that when you keep injury-prone players around as long as Arsenal do, you need to just expect that they will stay that way. This unfortunately creates a huge squad drag where your best players seem to only be on the pitch 60% of the minutes in a year, and often not at the same time. Compare that with what Chelsea and Leicester and Chelsea again had going the last three seasons in terms of squad continuity…
We now return to our story.
Ox is the wild card here. I think last season was the first time he’s truly come into his own. His best position seems to be as a wing back, but he’s also a good center mid in more of an 8 role. He is one of the fastest, best dribbling players in the league. So what’s the problem?
Well, he only has one year left on his deal. He’s also just coming into his prime, knows he can command a good salary on the open market, and probably wants some assurances on playing time and position. The other question is: can he score goals? His output looks like a creative midfielder. Arsenal need goal threats from their wide forwards and for all his good traits, Ox has never really shown that, so even with Ox around, Arsenal need a scorer from wide.
Next we hit the midfield issue. We are not taking any wagers on whether Cazorla will be healthy enough to perform next season. This leaves Arsenal with some combination of Xhaka, Elneny, Ramsey, Ox(?), Coquelin, and Iwobi in the midfield 2. Xhaka is a talented passer, but a bit slow and a brainless tackler. Coquelin is a very busy defender, but not versatile. Elneny is still a bit of an unknown – our passing model loves him but Arsenal fans have barely seen him play across 18 months at the club. Iwobi is a great young passer, but probably not a CM and not ready to dominate games defensively. And finally you get to Aaron Ramsey…
I like Ramsey. I also have strong criticisms of Ramsey that I think are valid. These two viewpoints can exist at the same time. Aaron Ramsey is an excellent attacking passer. He is also great at getting himself into good shooting positions.
The problem? He can’t finish.
“One of these things is not like the other… one of these things is not the same.”
So his greatest strength is getting into excellent finishing positions. And his biggest weakness is being a poor finisher. That’s a pretty cruel tradeoff. If this were a role-playing game, you’d just say fuck it, and re-roll.
The other issue with current Aaron Ramsey is the defensive output. I’m not sure he’s a two-way player any more. Part of this may come down to role – he has played wide or more as a 10 in recent seasons – but the Ramsey that everyone fell in love with were the 12-13 and 13-14 versions that had him blowing up play constantly in addition to attacking. Modern Rambo does not do this. If he’s not capable of doing that, then Arsenal need a different option to be able to play Wenger’s midfield 2. If he is capable of doing this, then Arsenal desperately need him to start doing so again, because a midfield that only has Xhaka or Coquelin doing the defensive work is unlikely to win the league.
Finally we get to right back. Pop quiz!
Please match the following players with the number of possession-adjusted tackles they made per90 last season.
After a lot of study, I think Hector Bellerin is an ideal wing back. He’s very fast, pretty good at attacking, and uh… well, that was pretty much it last year. In previous seasons he had more defensive output, but last year was very low. This is weird, as fullback is a position that needs to defend. Whatever you think of them, accumulating tackles and interceptions – especially at fullback – is usually a solid indicator that “defending is occurring.” Even as a back 4, Hector didn’t do that much. Maybe that changes this year?
Regardless, beyond Bellerin, the right back options in the new season are currently Jenkinson, who is probably a below average PL fullback, Callum Chambers, who everyone feels is a center back, and The Interminable Contract of Mathieu Debuchy.
You could be forgiven for thinking Debuchy had changed clubs last season. Or gone out on loan, like he did in 15-16. According to Transfermarkt he had 266 minutes in all competitions last season, which includes 250 in… Premier League 2.
And somehow, impossible as it may seem, Debuchy still has another TWO YEARS left on his contract! 2019!!!!!11!1111!
The answers to the earlier pop quiz are
Pedro = 2.25
Moses = 1.80
Bellerin = 1.04
Confusing stuff, I admit. Antonio Conte is a fucking magician.
Even if you think Bellerin is god’s gift to right backs, Arsenal still need a viable backup option in case he gets injured, and none of the current options are good.
And So It Begins
Let’s start with center forward, since that one gets all the headlines.
The two best guys on the board are Mbappe and Alvaro Morata. Like I said in the Valuing Mbappe piece, I don’t think £100M is wholly unreasonable for the young Frenchman and apparently neither do Arsenal.
Morata is likely to be a bit cheaper – probably in the 70-90M range with add-ons – but despite my long-term love for the Real Madrid player, at this point I think Mbappe might actually be the better option.
After those two guys, things completely fall apart. None of the big names are gettable or fit the age profile we want. If Arsenal are spunking big money on a top tier forward, he needs to be able to lead the line for the next five years. Additionally, they don’t need another good backup forward, which is what Lucas Perez was for them last year.
Lacazette is the next biggest name on the rumour mill, and I suggested him for Arsenal back in January of 2014. 3.5 years later, Lyon have had the best of him and Arsenal are still sniffing around. I still think he’s good, but at 26, I have concerns about what an elite pace striker will look like on the back half of a five-year contract.
The next two best targets, at least in my mind, are both players owned by English clubs. The funny thing is, the big clubs almost never sell to each other. They all buy from Southampton, they all sell cast-offs lower down the league, but they almost never make deals between themselves. However, in terms of statistical profiles, Kelechi Iheanacho stands out by a country mile.
The above is a combined plot across the last two seasons of Iheanacho at Manchester City. He’s really quite good.
The other player owned by an English club that I would go after is Tammy Abraham. He had an awesome season last year in the Championship on a pretty bad team, he has great size, pace, and strength, he can play both wide and central, and he can pass. Would I pay £30M in the current market for Abraham? Easily. £40M? Probably. £50M? Eh. As long as there were no buybacks and the sell-on clause was reasonable I would think long and hard about it. Yes, it would be a gamble, but I think Abraham is a more versatile player than Lukaku at the same age, and his upside is probably even bigger.
No way Chelsea sell him to Arsenal, by the way, so it’s all just pie in the sky.
On the other hand, I pitched a Traore and Abraham for Alexis swap to Chelsea super fan Jake Cohen two months ago, and he got visibly excited by the deal, so maybe Arsene should call Emenalo and get busy.
If all of those fall through, you end up with even more risk for what are likely to be big prices.
In short, finding a top tier center forward for anything approaching a reasonable price is nearly impossible these days. Yet you’ll still find plenty of talking heads out there both castigating teams for the prices they pay while eviscerating teams because they didn’t manage to bring quality players in during the window.
Verdict: Any one of Mbappe, Morata, Iheanacho, or Abraham would be great. Lacazette (guide price: £50M) still makes sense, but is the least exciting of the lot. After that, you’re gambling and hoping you win.
Central Mid/Defensive Mid
Last spring, I told everyone that Naby Keita would be the one midfielder in the world I would pick for Arsenal (or Liverpool). A fantastic athlete, he’s great at both ends of the pitch and exactly the type of midfield dynamo Arsenal needed.
The world responded with, “Who the fuck is Naby Keita?!?” which at the time was a pretty fair question.
One year on, Naby finished 2nd in the German Bundesliga with RB Leipzig in their first ever season in the Bundesliga. From what I hear, there is no chance he’s moving this summer.
My second choice for midfield dynamo would have been Corentin Tolisso of Lyon. Unfortunately, last week Tolisso made a €50M move to Bayern Munich. Du schnoozen, du loozen, ja?
After those two guys, things get complicated. There just aren’t that many players in the world who fit the “ridiculously well-rounded midfielder” skill set that Arsenal require, so you start to make hard choices. My opinion is that we can sacrifice a bit of attacking output in exchange for guys who defend. Longer term, maybe we are looking for more of a Santi instead of a Ramsey, but honestly we’ll be perfectly happy with someone really good.
I don’t think Arsenal can get a Rabiot or a Kovacic, but one of these three guys might be possible. Jorginho is probably the best right now. Torres might be the best attacking player of the three. And Neves is still young, but almost certainly a midfield prodigy.
Verdict: I have no clue. I think the most likely scenario is that Arsene chooses to continue on with his current midfield and focus on other areas of need.
This is already long, so I’m going to break it here and continue next week with suggestions for the two wide forward positions, a right back, and some tactical discussion to wrap it up.
Thanks for reading!