If you are like many Arsenal fans, or football fans in general, you have likely been keeping track of the consistent and steady stream of transfer rumors floating around. I, as a choice or habit, generally refuse to write about the constant flow of rumors, transfer saga ups and downs, and tales spun by outlets knowing it will get clicks and the attention of fans desperate for the fantasies of what their team could be. In fact, I have gone on record in a previous blog suggesting there is a dangerous, downside to these rumors and their effects on fans’ relationships with clubs.
It is something that isn’t going to change today entirely, as I won’t speak to whether the rumors are true, or likely, or even plausible, but there is an aspect of these two links I find very interesting from a team building and team-dynamic aspect. That will be the focus today, as we look at recent links with two separate, and quite contrasting, wingers.
If you have not paid attention to the news, in recent weeks and days, Arsenal have been linked with two swap deals. The first with Atletico Madrid who are, supposedly, corralling Arsenal away from their precious center defensive midfielder Thomas Partey, and instead looking to make a swap involving winger Thomas Lemar for Alexander Lacazette. Quite the difference between these two Madrid players and, while Arsenal have been linked with Lemar in the past – I wouldn’t necessarily have put a winger at the top of the “must get” list.
The other recent link that has sparked some imagination and curiosity in Gooners across the world is a link with AS Roma, swapping young star Justin Kluivert for Henrik Mkhitaryan. The deal would also demand an exchange of cash be involved, but again, Kluivert is predominately a left-wing player that is capable of playing right wing and has tried out some time behind a striker in more of a 10-type role.
The contrast in these players doesn’t revolve around their age — Lemar 24, Kluivert, 21 — nor their positions – both being predominately wingers – but more around how their recent career has gone. Lemar appears to be out of favor in Madrid, netting 0 goals and 0 assists in only 24 appearances in La Liga and Champions League, many of which have been off the bench. A worrisome place to be as he enters the beginning of his prime. Kluivert, in contrast, has been a pretty regular starter when healthy (missed 6 games due to a hamstring injury) making 27 appearances, contributing 7 goals and 2 assists. A much better place to be as he segues from the youth stage of his career into being a full-fledged professional.
I will leave it up to you which you would prefer if Arsenal have their choice, but I want to focus on a different question – why would Arsenal want either of them?
While these are simply rumors and, for all we know, far from coming to fruition, or even being real, Arsenal are in a position where the 3 positions in their attack could have 7 people vying for time. It remains to be seen what Arsenal will do with Aubameyang and Lacazette this summer, especially given that one of these links involves a swap with Lacazette, but until then, the team currently is juggling Martinelli, Bakayo Saka, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah, Nicolas Pepe, and Reiss Nelson all looking to continue to get their share of game time.
Remove the three stars – Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe – and you are still left with four young prospects, two of whom bloomed this year on the left-hand side, one of whom Arsenal will be desperate to give a payday and hang onto, and both are players who Arsenal will want to give clear opportunities to shine. There should already be concerns over the potential time-share battles between Gabrielle Martinelli and Bakayo Saka, should Arsenal manage to extend Aubameyang’s contract. Adding another winger to the mix deepens the competition for the spot, something that can be beneficial, but also threatens their potential growth.
The story is no different on the right side. While Reiss Nelson will likely have another year of being second in the pecking order, Arsenal will clearly be anxious and determined to have Pepe settle in and put up goal and assist tallies more in line with his time at Lille. The idea of injecting another 21 or 24-year-old into the mix feels just as likely to upset team dynamics as it does to spur players on to better themselves.
It’s this aspect that may be the most worrisome part. The fine line between growth from internal competition and harming player growth is very real — and likely a finer line than many fans would like to believe. On paper, we all want to believe that throwing in more competition makes a team better and those that rise to the challenge reap what they sow. Sometimes it’s true. Other times, that competition blocks a player’s growth and denies them game time and coaching attention they would otherwise be getting. A few wrong moves or selections from Arteta could see them walk out the door. While it’s not entirely a like-for-like situation, having Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain certainly was a factor in Serge Gnabry being loaned and eventually leaving Arsenal for Bayern Munich.
There is no doubt that Arsenal are in a position where they must balance winning now, with the risk of dropping a few points here and there to turn these young players from prospects to stars. Putting their best foot forward toward regaining Champions League revenue is crucial, and unless this is shining a light on the fact that Arsenal are not expecting to retain Lacazette or Aubameyang, it’s hard to see how the potential benefits could outweigh the clear, potential drawbacks.
In fact, the only majorly intriguing aspect of the Kluivert swap would be the blunt removal of a need for Thomas Lemar, in an attempt to take him off the table as an option for Atletico Madrid to push in negotiations. In this scenario, Arsenal could see themselves gain a young prospect capable of playing across the midfield, while twisting Atletico Madrid’s arm to see if they feel they are in need of someone with Lacazette’s talents badly enough to part with someone like Partey. While there is little doubt that would be the dream scenario for the Gunners, given the difficulties that lie in front of clubs getting deals done this window, one could understand if clubs aren’t trying to play mental, transfer chess with one another.
I am all for arming Arteta with as many options to flex and fit into a very changed side, but I cannot help but feel both of these moves seem like Arsenal are taking their eye off the target. Adding either of these players would simply be a luxury swap, when Arsenal are in greater need of help at the heart of the backline, in the defensive midfield role, and an overhaul to the midfield in general. There are interesting dynamics at play, but ones that could quickly sour the great development we have gotten from our current youth and no one wants to see Martinelli, Bakayo Saka, and Nicolas Pepe’s growth slowed.