After Narrowly Missing Out on Top Four, Where Do Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Go From Here?
Arsenal’s 5-1 victory over Everton last Sunday clouded over the disappointment of squandering their hopes of returning to the Champions League following damaging defeats to Tottenham and Newcastle. Yet whilst it may not fit the narrative at this moment in time, the Gunners have made significant progress both on and off the pitch.
Finishing on a total of 69 points – an 8-point improvement on last season, Mikel Arteta’s side missed out on a top-four finish by just two points.
Anybody who would’ve predicted they’d be even that close would’ve been called a madman, especially after losing their opening three games. Plus, when you factor the age of the squad on top of that, it’s not outlandish to say Arsenal even overachieved.
Despite this, the fact is it was right in Arsenal’s hands with just three games to go and they bottled it. Sure, they were unlucky with injuries to Thomas Partey, Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu, but Arteta made some costly errors that ultimately cost them.
Arteta’s Costly Errors
The most obvious thing to point at is the whole Aubameyang debacle, but the fact is he was underperforming at Arsenal for over 12 months. Of course, when the Gabonese striker is fully motivated, he’s world-class on and off the ball, as we have seen at both Dortmund and Arsenal and as we’re currently seeing at Barcelona.
However, Arteta is building a youthful and hungry squad at Arsenal and it seems Aubameyang was a disruptive influence off the pitch and was a threat to the culture change he intends to deliver.
After failing to sign Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina, it was clear there was nobody available who met the calibre of what Arsenal are trying to achieve, which is fine. But the short-term solution was right under Mikel Arteta’s nose the whole time. He should’ve turned to Eddie Nketiah far sooner.
The 22-year-old enjoyed an impressive finish to the campaign, racking 5 goals in his last 7 games and subsequently overtaking Lacazette’s dismal league tally of 4. Arteta may have been reluctant to drop the Frenchman because he was the captain and an experienced figure in the leadership group, but it’s clear as day Nketiah should’ve been called upon a lot earlier.
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His goal threat and athleticism combined with the development of his link-up play make him a far more dangerous threat than Lacazette. The only reason it wasn’t obvious is that he was getting 10-minute cameos in games that they were trailing.
He has been treated unfairly and admittedly his manager realises that. Now he’s proven he’s good enough for this level, tying him down to a new contract is wise.
For the second season in a row, Arteta struggled to adapt his team following the injuries to both Partey and Tierney. Acquiring Nuno Tavares meant that Granit Xhaka didn’t have to fill in at left-back, whilst Albert Sambi Lokonga was brought in to provide cover for Partey.
However, whilst both are talented players, they’re inexperienced and raw and Arteta perhaps threw them in the deep end too soon – especially Lokonga.
Not many players can carry out the #6 role Partey does in this system, and whilst Lokonga has the tools to become a top player in said role, he’s struggled to make the immediate jump from the Belgian Pro League to the Premier League.
In hindsight, Arteta should’ve reverted to the double pivot of the more experienced duo of Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny sooner.
Last summer was about trimming the squad and building a solid foundation, this summer has to be the level raiser – quality over quantity. In terms of the transfer budget, it appears missing out on Champions League qualification won’t have the detrimental impact it was initially thought.
It’s being reported that the Kroenke’s are ready to significantly back Arteta and technical director Edu once again with up to £150million. The kitty will be boosted with the sales of Kostas Mavropanos, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira.
Other likely departures include the likes of Bernd Leno, Hector Bellerin, Pablo Mari and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who should be able to generate about £30million between them.
Lacazette’s hefty £180k wages will be freed up as he leaves on a free. Nketiah may end up in the same boat but it is being hinted that he is ready to accept a new long-term contract and remain in North London with Elneny, who has also earned a one-year extension.
Reiss Nelson’s future remains uncertain despite a fairly encouraging loan spell at Europa Conference League finalists Feyenoord.
With just 12 months left on his current deal, it’s likely Arsenal will assess the 22-year-old during pre-season before making the decision whether to sell him this summer or offer him a new contract where he could be of use in the Europa League fixtures. He could offer useful depth given he can play at both flanks.
The Gunners are also prepared to cut their losses on record signing Nicolas Pepe, after failing to live up to his price tag in North London. Despite yielding fairly decent numbers in terms of output, the majority of actions in the final third have left both fans and his manager frustrated.
Whilst the club shouldn’t have too much of a problem recouping £20-25million for the Ivorian, the £140k wage bill may be a stumbling block.
There have been conflicting reports regarding the centre-back situation at Arsenal. Fans will have their fingers crossed that Arteta intends to finally integrate William Saliba into the first-team picture having won Ligue 1 Young Player of the Season.
Thankfully, it appears he does, going by what the Spaniard told RMC Sport recently: “He has to come back. He has the experience and the environment to be competitive with us.”
Saliba is keen to remain at Marseille to experience Champions League football but hearing those words should give him the motivation to compete with Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes at the club of his dreams.
After all, he’s arguably the best centre-back at the club and once he grows in stature to further complement his elite technical and defending qualities this will become clear. Meanwhile, Gabriel Magalhaes has garnered attention from Juventus, although it’s likely the Gunners will be very reluctant to sell.
In terms of incomings, Arsenal already have USA international goalkeeper Matt Turner arriving to provide backup for Aaron Ramsdale. 19-year-old Brazilian winger Marquinhos looks set to sign too, though is more likely to be an option for the future. Ahead of these, a top-class centre forward is the #1 priority.
The difference between them and Tottenham is the latter have two world-class forwards with elite output in Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. Arsenal simply can’t compete with their level of goalscoring with kids, so bolstering their forward options is a must.
Strengthening the Attack
If recent reports are anything to go by it appears the club’s top targets are Gabriel Jesus, Victor Osimhen and Tammy Abraham. Interest on both Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Alexander Isak seems to have cooled as a result of their struggling seasons.
The move for Jesus is the one gathering the most steam, which is somewhat surprising given how different he is profile-wise to the other names being mentioned. He is similar to Nketiah in the sense that he is diligent, versatile and a top outlet, but isn’t a physical specimen ala Osimhen and Abraham.
However, he’s still a top player with top output and will cost significantly less with just 12 months left on his Manchester City deal. He would provide elite depth not only at centre forward, but on both flanks too. He’s certainly a level raiser and would be a fantastic start to the window.
On top of that, the club are likely to pursue a winger who is capable of playing both sides to an exceptional standard to compete with Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli; and will essentially be a Nicolas Pepe upgrade. They simply cannot go another season of using 20-year-old Saka like a bar of soap. The kid needs to rest.
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A return for Serge Gnabry would be the dream but again, failing to qualify for the Champions League renders this highly unlikely, as the German will have superior offers given his uncertain future at Bayern Munich.
Cody Gakpo is an exciting alternative they could hunt, as well as Moussa Diaby, though Newcastle United’s interest in the Leverkusen winger will only surge his pricetag up.
Alternatively, Arsenal could pursue a complete centre forward, likely a cheaper alternative to the aforementioned names, and utilise Jesus as a wide rotation option. Calvert-Lewin may be the most realistic shout, despite his struggles with form and injuries.
His physical presence along with his determination to get on the end of crosses from Saka and Tierney would still elevate the team. Gianluca Scammaca and Darwin Nunez are other names that could be available, though the volume of interest in the latter may inflate his price.
Outside of these, it’s certainly a surprise there have been no concrete links with Ivan Toney, who would absolutely fit the mould. His devastating physical and technical qualities essentially make him Harry Kane lite. Perhaps certain off-the-pitch incidents have put the Gunners off the Brentford talisman.
Another priority is a central midfielder that will operate on the left of Arteta’s midfield 3; essentially an upgrade and a more suitable profile to Xhaka.
This role requires a second phase presence in the build-up, which Xhaka performs tremendously well, but also requires runs from deep and quality between the lines in the final third. Xhaka doesn’t excel at the latter, hence why an upgrade is necessary, despite the Swiss captain being a key figure in the side since Arteta arrived at the club.
This isn’t to say Arsenal should move on from Xhaka – his leadership and maturity in possession are still valuable amongst an inexperienced group and football is a squad game after all.
However, he lacks mobility and is therefore slow and predictable in possession. They need someone more nimble and technically proficient between the lines – someone very much so in the Ilkay Gundogan mould.
Gundogan himself would be ideal, but the lack of Champions League football makes a move incredibly unlikely. Snapping up teammate Oleksandr Zinchenko could certainly be plausible however, who can play at left-back to a very high standard too.
But Arsenal are more likely to move for Youri Tielemans, who is available at a cut-price this summer with only 12 months remaining on his contract. Reports suggest Arteta has already conducted background checks on the player’s personality, who makes complete sense profile-wise.
The Belgian midfielder can operate in the half spaces, can drop to help in the build-up and is comfortable playing between the lines. If the technical inconsistencies can be cut out of his game and he works hard, he is a top player, no doubt.
Outside of Tielemans, Arsenal may swoop for Houssem Aouar, Ruben Neves or Fabian Ruiz, though the latter’s centre of gravity is similar to Xhaka’s in the sense that it isn’t low enough and so he lacks agility. Wildcard options could be England U21 internationals Curtis Jones and Jacob Ramsey.
Both possess the athleticism to carry the ball and attack the box, as well as being strong, press resistant and having top ball striking. Ironically, the man who ended their top four hopes would’ve been perfect, but the club hesitated to make a move for Bruno Guimaraes in January. Their loss is Newcastle’s gain.
Depth at Full-Back
Had both Tomiyasu and Tierney both stayed fit all season, Arsenal would’ve wrapped up top four comfortably. It’s therefore imperative Arteta addresses the full-back position this summer. It’s no secret the Gunners have been monitoring Tariq Lamptey and Tino Livramento for some time, but their injuries and fees make a transfer this summer unrealistic.
Besides, Arsenal have a young English right-back of their own within their ranks in Brooke Norton-Cuffy, whose development at Lincoln City this season looking extremely promising. Additionally, Cedric Soares is contracted until 2024 and he’s not going to be in a rush to leave; overstocking in one position is never wise.
Therefore, the widely reported Aaron Hickey interest makes a whole lot of sense. The Scotsman is both footed, much like Tomiyasu, and thus can comfortably operate at both right-back and left-back.
With Nuno Tavares struggling for confidence, a season out on loan for the 22-year-old would do him the world of good – though a sale shouldn’t be ruled out if an acceptable offer comes in. Hickey can come in and act as cover at both left-back and right-back whilst Norton-Cuffy continues to develop, perhaps out on loan in the Championship.
Overall, despite the bitterly disappointing end to the season there’s still plenty to be excited about for Arsenal. The upgrades at centre forward and central midfield will elevate the team to the next level.
Meanwhile, adding depth in defence with the return of Saliba and a new full-back, injuries to key players won’t harm their chances so significantly. Besides, they have the youngest squad in the league, which is remarkable in itself – they will only grow and get better together.
Plus, whilst fans will wince at the sound of the Europa League anthem, the competition will be a great opportunity for the likes of Lokonga, Tavares and Nketiah to gain momentum and further develop.
They may even reward game-time to academy prospects Charlie Patino, Marcelo Flores and Omari Hutchinson, amongst others, in the later group stage matches should they wrap qualification up early. Not to mention it gives them a second chance at qualifying for the Champions League if all else fails in the league.
Whilst rebuilds can be frustrating at times for fans, they aren’t as daunting as they seem. Watching Hale End’s own at the forefront of this incredibly likeable team has helped bring a united atmosphere not seen before at the Emirates Stadium. There is a coherency at the club that has been missing for years.
In order to keep the (majority of) fans on his side though, Mikel Arteta needs to ensure Champions League qualification next season to prove they are still going in the right direction.
It’s unknown how much backing Thomas Tuchel will get from his new owners this summer and Manchester United will be starting afresh under Erik ten Hag so there’s certainly an opportunity for Arsenal to make another push for the top four. Ultimately, the decisions and recruitment Arteta and Edu pull off this summer will be the catalyst to this.
By: James Lloyd / @Jlloyd2000
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Marc Atkins / Getty Images