The art of team-building in sports is a delicate science. And even when it all makes sense and looks good on paper, sometimes things just don’t turn out. Aspects of Arsenal’s team this year are examples of it. Coming into the year Arsenal could boast a potential team sheet with some combination of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pepe, Ozil, Torreira, Ceballos, Xhaka, Tierney, Bellerin, Leno. The type of team that I distinctly remember telling people would have a handful of games containing over 5 goals between the two teams – not quite although they did manage a ten-spot in their EFL Cup cracker.
They were the type of team on paper that could be reminiscent of Liverpool’s 2012/13 team that scored 71, conceded 43, and would lose to West Brom 3-0, beat Norwich 5-2, win 6-0, lose to Southampton 3-1. The defense would be shaky and questionable, but that attack would be ruthless and effective. We would win by simply outscoring everyone. Needless to say, it didn’t come together that way. Not only that, nothing really came together to start the season. And in the end, we were exposed for being a very incomplete side.
In hindsight, there may be plenty to point to or analyze that foreshadowed why it wouldn’t work, who didn’t fit, and why this was a disaster. But if you told me at the start of the year we would struggle mid table, fire Unai Emery, and struggle to create chances, I would be a little bit taken aback. I never believed we had a title contending team, that part was obvious, but I thought we had a team that could get us around 70 points on the year and I was wrong. Very wrong.
Much of the team didn’t work. It didn’t work together, it didn’t work for Emery, and many aspects won’t work for the identity Arteta has alluded to wanting. All the praises for Mikel this year getting the type of results he did from that side and showing they could produce enough quality to win silverware, but a rebuild is needed NOW and it needs to be done right.
Arsenal can and should look for reinforcement down the spine — that’s no mystery or shock — they’re missing stability in the center of their defense and an ability to be self-sufficient without dedicated midfield protection from two sitting center midfielders. They have a need for creative spark from the midfield, as well as, ball carriers to help progress open play. These are all important and all things that at this point are mostly known. However, I am stuck believing there is a larger gap in their team building than simply better quality that is needed for this rebuild.
The Arsenal squad sits in a weird age dynamic. An odd team makeup of players at resoundingly different points in their careers. Arsenal have an average squad age of 25, but that is oddly misleading when it comes to quality players at each age. Arsenal have is 9 players under the age of 24, 5 players above 30, and 12 between 24 and 28.
The 12 in the middle bracket, players in their prime, are Emi Martinez, Leno, Macey, Mustafi, Chambers, Soares, Mari, Kolasinac, Bellerin, Torreira, Xhaka, and Pepe. Within this list, how many are being put on the transfer list and how many are backups? One of the keepers will be sold or a backup, albeit a good one, Macey will be sold or a backup, Mustafi could be sold if healthy as Arteta looks to move past his services, Chambers may be sold, Soares is a backup, Kolasinac should be sold, and Torreira is likely to be sold. Some even call for Xhaka or Bellerin to be replaced by superior quality.
That leaves Arsenal with one of the keepers, maybe Mari who we have not seen much of, and Pepe as definitive players for the future with a likely presence of Bellerin and Xhaka in the coming year or two. Arguably, none of these players offer Arsenal the combination of personality, quality, and position to step forward and be the main pillar in which Arteta crafts his team around.
Keepers are great but it’s hard to build an attacking team around one, Mari is a big question mark right now, Pepe has tons of quality but isn’t exactly the ideal Arteta-man and is a work in progress, Bellerin is a leader but not a central pillar, and Xhaka arguably has a ceiling to his capability along with a history of incompatibility with other defensive midfielders like Torreira or Francis Coquelin.
I’m not simply talking about leadership either, although naturally that is a component. I am talking about a core player in which every other player is selected based on compatibility with the qualities they bring fitting what Arteta is looking for and needs in order to create a complete team. If you had to say who within the squad right now Arteta should rebuild this team around, who would you pick?
There are a handful of players up and coming – Saliba, Martinelli, Saka, maybe Pepe in a year or two – and there are a handful of players that don’t fit or are toward the end of their career – Lacazette, Luiz, Ozil, Willian if his transfer is completed.
Chances are you answered Aubameyang to that question and it makes sense. He is a fantastic goalscorer, a massive component to Arsenal, a good captain in his own right, and yet, in a year where he scored nearly 30 goals for Arsenal and 22 in the league, Arsenal have had their worst finish in nearly 30 years.
That’s not on Aubameyang. I get it and completely agree. But asking him to replicate that season for three more years is a tough ask, bordering on unfair, and would it solve all the problems? Arsenal have had goal scorers and star attackers in their history, look no further than Thierry Henry, but the most successful teams have had someone else as a core pillar to the team – a Patrick Viera. And that is what Arsenal have never replaced and are needing in this side. Not just because of the quality Viera offered, but because of the presence he was in that side while creating for star attackers to do their thing.
Aubameyang should be the focal point of the attack, the focal point of the tactics, and the end game of the build-up play, because he finishes everything with remarkable efficiency, but Arsenal should look elsewhere for a player that can be the cornerstone of their rebuild.
Currently, I am not sure they have that in their side. Torreira? Xhaka? Pepe? Even Kieran Tierney, a fantastic captain in the making isn’t quite it. For me, that is a person that is in that middle age bracket, offers a link between the rising youth potential, yet has some clout with veterans around the locker room, and has the ability to make the team click. They have a style of play that compliments a variety of others, with the ability to bring them into the game and get their best. They can progress the ball off the dribble or pick out a pass, choose when we go fast and when we slow it down and possess, has the ability to play both sides of the ball well, and is reaching that prime age of performance, so their level of play is maintained through the 3 to 4 years of building.
Now, I promise this article is not just a Thomas Partey adoration piece. It’s not, but it’s the reason someone like Partey is so intriguing to me even if the price range is high. Is Partey the solution to every Arsenal problem? No. Far from. But he does have the ability to stand as a centerpiece to what type of player Arteta employs in his remaining 10 spots.
Partey is not the only option out there, in fact, Ceballos showed glimpses of a player that could potentially fill this void late in the season. But Partey offers a strong grace on the ball, an ability to retain it in tight spaces with technical play or strength, an ability to carry it up the pitch, progress decently with the pass, and clatter into tackles with a bit of bite that is sometimes missing from the Arsenal midfield. I’m not saying he is the perfect player. He certainly would need the right pieces around him for it to come off well, but having just turned 27 he sits at that prime age to bridge the gap and build around for the next 3 to 4 years.
There is a reason a player like that is at the top of Arsenal’s list and it’s what he could allow the rest of the team to be. Facilitate Aubameyang, protect the backline, carry the ball, high energy, and by all accounts, loved by his coaches and teammates. Arsenal are missing their pillar, missing their Viera, missing their cornerstone and it’s something that should be solved before ill advised players are added around a void.