On a recent Arsecast, BBC’s David Ornstein said the Gunners were aiming to return to competing for the league, and the Champions League, in 2019. Although it’s plain to see it’s still encouraging to know that the Gunners aren’t blind to what they are: a strong mid-table team, that’s slipped from the top four. If Arsenal is going to return, there is plenty to be done in the next two years.
Arsenal’s Plan: A Two-Year Solution to Champions League Football
If the January transfer window was the start of Arsène Wenger’s two-year solution, then the team is off to a great start; an offensive that was lacking potency, and on the verge of losing two of its most creative threats has had a massive facelift.
Despite losing Alexis Sanchez, the Frenchman brought in Henrikh Mhkitaryan, re-signed the best playmaker English football has seen this decade and added a striker that has been valued around €100 million for €55.5 million in Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang.
It’s a great starting point, but it doesn’t solve the Gunners biggest issues.
Step One: Fix the Defense
Arsenal’s defence can politely be described as porous. The 10.4 shots against per game that they allow, is fifth best in the league, but a far cry from England’s top defences. The difference between league-leading Manchester City, and Arsenal is the same as the difference between Arsenal and the 16th best team: Bournemouth. To put that in perspective when it comes to shots allowed, Arsenal’s defence is closer to Swansea, Crystal Palace, and West Brom than it is to City.
In terms of expected goals Arsenal’s 30.37 xGA is sixth best, and just shy of double City’s 16.92 xGA – the unsurprising best in England. One thing worth noting: only Manchester United and Arsenal have an xGA over 25 in the top six. Tottenham, Chelsea, and City are all below 21 xGA.
This divide is nothing new to anyone who watches the Gunners consistently – or ever, really – but it’s important to highlight just how much they need to fix if they want to contend with England’s best.
Start with a CDM
One of the biggest contributors to Arsenal’s defensive inability comes from the channels, and open-spaces, they leave in the middle of the pitch. Their recent game against Swansea was a perfect example. Arsenal dominated possession, crowded the middle of the pitch, and still every time the Swans countered, they raced straight up the middle, uncontested.
The only Arsenal player who plays the CDM role without bombing forward unnecessarily is Mohammed Elneny, but his lack of quality makes him far from the solution Arsenal need if they’re to find themselves back in the hunt for a title. While Patrick Vierra will always be the gold standard fans look back at, and a defensive stalwart would be ideal, it’s not a mould they have to stick with. Finding a Fernandinho, a Thiago Motta, a Casemiro, would be just as valuable.
Arsenal need someone who can gather the ball from deep, move it up the pitch, and be in the right position to stop a counter. They don’t need an engine bossing the pitch, diving into tackles and regaining the ball; just a body to be in the right position when he’s needed.
Regardless of which direction they choose Arsenal need to make signing a top-class CDM a priority. If Mohammed Elneny, or Calum Chambers, is the best player they have for this role, the team will never reach their goals.
Then Find a Central Defender
Shkrodan Mustafi is a polarizing player. He has had flashes of brilliance during his time with Arsenal, but he’s yet to live up to expectations. Rob Holding is young, and he looks it. He’s nowhere near ready for a starting role in a back three or a back four, and it’s unclear if he will be in two years’ time.
As it sits, Arsenals central defenders simply lack talent. These players are good, but the club needs better if they’re to compete against a back four like Manchester City’s that boasts eight players who could arguably be starters on any other English side.
There’s not much to add here that isn’t apparent to even the most casual fan. The Gunners backline simply isn’t good enough, and it starts in the middle.
Step Two: Don’t Give Up On Youth
There are a number of promising young players who could play a role in the Arsenal starting eleven, or on the bench, in the next couple years. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is already pushing for a spot and has shown he can provide some depth as a wing-back, but his strength is in midfield. If he continues to progress he could work as a stop-gap CDM until the team finds a better solution.
Eddie Nketiah has drawn the eye of supporters after notching a brace off the bench against Norwich City in the EFL cup. As a part of the Arsenal U23 squad, the England international has notched nine goals, and two assists in just 11 matches, making him the club’s top scorer.
Reiss Nelson, at just 17 years old is arguably the most impressive Arsenal youngster. Seven goals, two assists, in just nine appearances with the U23’s, Nelson is quickly making a name for himself, and by 2019 he should be pushing to make the jump to the premier league.
Step Three: Move on from Arsène Wenger.
What was once a controversial statement is no longer so. Wenger has given his all to the club, and will deservedly go down as a hero, but after two decades it is time to move on. The complaints from critics have remained consistent and true for the better part of the decade.
Under Wenger, Arsenal lack defensive structure; midfielders are freed from the chains of defensive duties, the fullbacks bomb forward – on both sides, at the same time – and the press is frequently disjointed. In a word, Wenger is Arsenal’s hamartia.
Arsenal took a step in the right direction this transfer window, but they’ll need to make leaps and bounds in the next two years if they hope to achieve their goal.
Embed from Getty Images