Everybody knew the post-Arsene Wenger transition was going to be difficult, but nobody quite appreciated how difficult. In a sense, Unai Emery was given an impossible job, handed a mismatched squad that had been allowed to drift as football moved beyond Wenger’s methods with a chaotic management structure that seemed to lose a key part every couple of months. Communication, though, was a major problem, as it had been for Emery in both his previous jobs outside of Spain. The media often had no idea what he was talking about and neither, various players revealed, did the squad. It’s a sign of how bad things had become that despite an eighth-place finish, the club’s worst since 1995, the season ends with a sense of optimism.
Mikel Arteta has an energy and a sense of direction that suggests a plan is in place and has a chance of succeeding. Victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal represented as good a performance and result in a major game as Arsenal has enjoyed in years. And perhaps most promisingly, there is a crop of exciting young players who have played at least semi-regularly this season. Bukayo Saka is probably the pick of them, but Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson and William Saliba all offer hope for the future.
It is they who are likely to form the core of the squad going forward. The incoherence of Arsenal’s approach to signings in recent years is seen in its four most expensive signings, all of them still at the club. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, after a 22-goal season, now looks likely to stay. The COVID-induced fall in the market means few sides will be keen on an expensive gamble for a 31-year-old. He prefers to operate through the middle, but can play on the left, although the suspicion must be that he would be more effective there if the central striker, Alexandre Lacazette, were somebody who more naturally dropped deeper to create space for him. The same issue blights Nicholas Pepe, a very left-footed right-winger who keeps finding at least one and often two teammates in the space into which he would like to cut infield.
And then there’s the ongoing issue of Mesut Ozil, who hasn’t played since the lockdown. With some reason, he feels the club has abandoned him after he expressed support for the Uyghurs in China, compounding existing tensions. But there is also a fundamental tactical problem of a front three who all want to play in the same space, and the fourth-biggest signing who naturally occupies the position one of those three would need to drop into in order to facilitate the other two.
Arsenal will probably sell Henrikh Mkhytarian (who has been on loan with Roma), wants to offload Ozil and would probably be keen on letting one of the other three go for the right price, but securing that price may not be achievable in the present market. Given the limited funds available, that means signings are likely to be few and cheap–and that’s before the complicating factor of agent Kia Joorabchian and his influence over Arsenal is taken into account.
A commanding central midfielder
Granit Xhaka has improved as the season went on and seems to relish life under Arteta, but there have been too many off days for him to be entirely trusted, while the likely departure of Matteo Guendouzi means a clear vacancy in central midfield. Atletico’s Thomas Partey would be available if Arsenal can match his €50 million release clause, but if that is too much, then Porto’s Danilo Pereira is a cut-price option.
A right-sided forward
It’s a squad that’s already top-heavy with forwards, so why would Arsenal need another one? In part it’s a matter of convenience, and in part because the present crop of forwards simply doesn’t fit together. Willian looks almost certain to leave Chelsea on a free transfer, is experienced, hard-working, is used to playing a pressing game and he can actually play wide. If either Lacazette or Aubameyang leave, the Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard has been linked as a (relatively) inexpensive alternative.
A center back who can defend
Good David Luiz is very good; Bad David Luiz is not, and his concession of five penalties this season is a league record. Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis have rarely looked good enough, while injuries have plagued Pablo Mari and Rob Holding. Malang Sarr of Rennes is out of contract this summer, which perhaps makes him a more likely target than Matthias Ginter, who is entering the last year of his present deal at Borussia Monchengladbach.