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Gunner Thoughts

Gunning for glory: Arsenal takes

I went through the Arsenal roster and picked a few player/positional quandaries Arsenal and fans have right now and put together a few thoughts. Some you may find hot, others not. You may not love them, agree with them, or want them, but you’re getting them anyhow!

It’s nearly the new year. Arsenal are turning the page on 2020, a year that has been filled with a roller coaster of emotions — Arteta’s rise, the stagnant lockdown, the fast and furious finish, followed by the possibly faster downfall. There’s one more game in the calendar year, a relatively important one versus Brighton in which Arsenal will look to keep their little bit of momentum rolling, and then it’s onto the January window and the second “half” of the season.

Of course at 16 matches, it’s not quite the halfway point, but allow me.

Last week, I wrote an article about the how Arsenal fans and the club will likely need to reassess what they consider a “success” for the season, given where they stand. The win against Chelsea offers a bit more hope, but I still stand by a lot of the statements I make in it. The idea that Arsenal will compete for top four is still a reach in my mind, even if the point difference is only 10.

We are heading toward the point in the season where it will always feel like it’s “only 10or 8 or 6, and while that offers a bit of fun, Arsenal have dug themselves an immense hole that would almost demand perfection from here on out to climb out of and obtain success… Well, that or a Europa League miracle, which I’m here for.

But what this stresses is the fact that Arsenal are at a real juncture in the road filled with tough decisions. Making the right decisions gives them a chance to recover from this terrible start and possibly correct their course. Getting these wrong or staying stagnant probably sets the Gunners back another year or more.

With that in mind, I went through the Arsenal roster and picked a few player/positional quandaries Arsenal and fans have right now and put together a few thoughts. Some you may find hot, others not. You may not love them, agree with them, or want them, but you’re getting them anyhow!

Let me know your thoughts or if there as things I missed you wish I would have covered!

William Saliba
I think it’s hard to argue that the situation surrounding Saliba’s handling this year has not be mismanaged. If you want to argue the kid isn’t ready to be ‘the guy’ in the Premier League yet, I can believe it, but it doesn’t excuse the poor handling up front. He had a personal loss, that’s clear, and it affected the early part of his season. However, the mismanagement of his loan situations, the Europa League registration, and his lack of first team involvement is inexcusable.

I can respect that the timeline was wonky this year with a transfer window and a domestic window with registration for Europa League due in between, but that’s why some of these executives and staff are paid a large sum and given powerful positions within the club. Letting that fall through the cracks given what the club paid to acquire him, and the lack of funds available to splash elsewhere, is embarrassing. It was a huge waste. But now the question is — how does it get salvaged? Loan him.

Only Arteta and Arsenal know how his level of play stacks up against the likes of Mustafi, Luiz, Chambers, and Holding. I have a hard time believing he is worse than some of those, but at this point the club has dug themselves a hole. If they play him, everyone will undoubtedly harp on them for wasting 6 months when it’s been clear he was ready. Even the argument that these last few months have been immense for him won’t completely wash. But if you loan him, any success next season can be chalked up to this growing period. It’s a clean slate and may be the club’s only option to save some face.

In January, Arsenal need to pick a lane. If he is here, play him. Work him into the side, into matches, and play him regularly. You know, as though you paid £30m for him and want him to succeed? If you have no intent to give him time and are set on him needing a transition year, loan him and be done with it.

Willian
I opened up with a heater and I know I probably lost some people so let’s dial up an easy one — Willian. Sometimes in sport writing you just get something spot on and, let me tell you, it feels SO GOOD. I took a lot of heat when I said, “A 3+1 deal for Willian is a clear sign Arsenal haven’t learned from the past“. It was a bad deal then, it’s a worse deal now. At least then I believed he would be worthwhile for 6-12 months.

Willian has been worth his salt for exactly 1 day. 1 match. 1 win. Since then, his play has dipped, his performances are awful, there’s far too much noise swirling about with his name attached to it — fact or rumor — and if Edu wants to contend that I know nothing about football for saying Willian has been awful and shouldn’t be played for a long while, well I want Edu out as well.

Willian is bad within this side, and it only gets worse. The sooner Arsenal actively try to move him on, the better chance they may have of some other sorry team finding value in taking a chance on him. However, I fear Arsenal have created another unnecessary problem for themselves that will take the full three years to resolve. Yay…

Granit Xhaka
Let’s talk about Xhaka for a minute. Settle in because this might upset some people. He was fantastic against Chelsea. He was something that our midfield pivot has been missing for most the year, especially in the last three games…He should still be moved on in the summer. 

We have seen performances like this from Xhaka before. This resurgence in the face of adversity. It’s great, it’s fun, it doesn’t really last. It’s not as though Arsenal’s midfield has struggled all year, Xhaka hasn’t played and suddenly he gets minutes and we are a different team. He has been involved in 11 Premier League matches and has been very, only okay.  

Xhaka with a chip on his shoulder, a bit of piss and vinegar in his game, something to prove and it leads to a good performance? Yeah, we’ve seen it, it doesn’t last. Happy to back him and applaud him and thank him for competing for the badge in his remaining games, but hope those games don’t go beyond the summer.

Maybe you don’t sell him in January any more, or maybe you do because there is an offer on the table, but don’t be lulled into believing another resurgence is in the cards. It’s not. Move along, Mikel.

AMN, Bellerin, and the right side
This is a tough one…. and with that opening I’ve lost some of you. No, this is a tough one despite what many may try to make you believe. AMN struggled to break into the side, but when he did he was very good in one match and pretty good in the other. Both as the right wingback for most of the match. However, against Chelsea, Bellerin was given the start, and if I had to venture a guess why, it has a lot to do with the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Maybe it’s not a pipe dream anymore to consider AMN as someone that could become a midfield regular, but it’s clear that Arteta isn’t comfortable with what he sees from Ainsley during training as a midfielder. At least not yet. It would also seem he also isn’t completely sold on what AMN offers as a true right back, hence the return of Bellerin who did play quite well against the Blues. SO, what to do?

Part of me looks at the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 future that Arteta claims to want, another part of me isn’t sure Arteta’s future is the one we should be basing our choices on at the moment (Hence the need for a better Technical Director), and a third part of me looks at the interest other clubs have in the two and wants to weigh in sale value. The ideal choice would have been keep them both and never sign Soares, but that’s out the window and Arsenal may be barreling toward another “Emi-Leno” situation in which keeping both isn’t a realistic option.

I’d like to see Niles given a shot at right back within a 4-back system, but if that is truly not something he can do then why are we keeping him? Not a midfielder (yet?), not a right back, functions in a 3-4-3 system we aren’t keen on playing long term. Arteta needs to spend the rest of this season sorting this out in a major way and/or sell one off to the highest bidder come summer.

Auba, Martinelli, the LW
How do I say, as politely as possible, that I don’t care which of them is the left wing as long as the other one is our striker?

There is plenty of reason to lay into Aubameyang at the moment. When you sign a big contract extension in which you are signing on to be ‘the man’, there is a huge expectation you live up to it. However, Arsenal as a functioning attack hasn’t lived up to any standards either.

Aubameyang’s xG this year? 4.2. Aubameyang’s goal tally this year? 4. The issue runs deeper than this, but it’s hard to argue that he is being fed with a lot of great chances and not putting them away. He has struggled this year and Arsenal have struggled. Why? Because the past few years that man has kept much of Arsenal’s production afloat. This year, we are feeding him even less and expecting the same tally? Not sure it works like that.

So, when it comes to these two, it’s a matter of formation for me. If we are in a 3-4-3 or don’t intend to have someone like ESR sitting in between the lines, I would prefer to see Auba on the left and Martinelli up top. Martinelli has the energy to lead the press, he has a great knack for getting on the end of things, and I don’t want Aubameyang pulling double duty and dipping into the midfield the way Lacazette or Nketiah are asked to by Arteta.

If Arsenal are in their 4-2-3-1 shape with ESR, or dare I say Ozil, linking the play, then you put Martinelli on the left and Auba up top. Allow that no. 10 to do the work in between the lines and keep Auba running off the shoulder of defenders and in dangerous central areas.

This, of course, is without seeing the pair together, or within specific systems. If we find Martinelli works better at ST than LW in a 4-2-3-1 and Auba gets to split that gap between opposition’s right back and right center back, I don’t care. But getting them on the field together routinely is a must for me.

Ozil
Inhales deeply… I’m going to focus on what Arsenal do now, from this point. It’s impossible to say whether leaving him unregistered was the answer since we only know what little we know. I think the notion that it was purely ‘footballing reasons’ is incorrect or a lie, but I can think of a multitude of reasons that that doesn’t make the decision wrong. That said, Arsenal needed to prove without a shred of doubt that they could win and compete without him and here we are in 15th place. Again, that doesn’t mean we would be a solved problem with him in the side, but you leave it open for reasonable debate when you lose 8 of your first 15 and he is missing while your attack flounders.

The question is, what to do in January. My answer…gulp… nothing.

Assuming that he is in fact an ‘unsellable’ asset, determined to see out his contract, Arsenal will have to lie in the grave they dug themselves. But he isn’t a part of Arsenal’s future either; and while that argument is inconsistent on a player to player basis, I stand firmly by that choice when it comes to him.

Arsenal would be better off giving those minutes to Emile Smith Rowe, working toward a functioning 3-man midfield with Willock or Saka or AMN or… others, or using the gap in their team to push themselves into signing another long term solution. There are a handful of options that don’t involve registering Ozil to satisfy his fan’s quench for Mesut moments, all of which seem like the route to take compared to the cons of reneging on the initial stance, regardless of it being right, wrong, or pure.

Quick hits:

Reiss Nelson- I genuinely have no idea what is going on with his situation. Is he hurt? No. Is he being loaned or sold? I can’t tell. Much like Saliba, pick a lane with him. If he’s here he should be involved in most match day squads. If there are other plans, get on with them and make it a bit more clear. I now go a little more nuts every time I see a relatively weak bench and he isn’t listed.

Balogun – Not a hot take, keep him. If this is out of Arsenal’s hands, then we need to look back at when it was very much in their hands and they did nothing. I’m sorry, but that would be immensely frustrating. Not signing him would be such clear and obvious error, VAR would be overturning the decision with 100% accuracy. Sign him.

Ceballos – At the start of the year I wrote a piece that suggested Dani could be the most important piece to Arsenal’s success. It hasn’t aged well… or maybe it has since he has played bad and we are 15th… I’ll let you decide. But my honest take is that this isn’t working out at the moment. Be that on Arteta for leashing him and the midfield a bit too much, or him for not being capable of consistently replicating the glimpses we saw from him at the end of last season, it’s unclear. However, decisions have to be made. Personally, I would either send him back or look to continue to give others more minutes hoping he rises to the occasion or can be slotted into the rotation.

David Luiz – Luiz, like Willian, has had his name swirling a lot lately. It’s hard to sift fact from fiction, but regardless, it’s never good. I mean, you don’t hear the same rumors of Tierney or Martinelli… just saying. I’m not on the ‘bin him yesterday’ train yet, but I’m certainly aboard the ‘keep him moving come summer’ train. There may be some value in keeping him for the season and playing him for his ability to hit the long ball against stingy low blocks. This value increases quite a bit if Saliba is in fact loaned and the depth at right center back take a hit. Holding has been good, but is shaky at times. At some point during the rest of this year, Luiz will make a run at the spot.

Mustafi – Bin and bin fast. Barca didn’t want him? I’m shocked. They wanted “a different profile”? I imagine that profile was “a good defender” and he didn’t quite make the grade. Maybe that’s harsh, but defenders are graded on consistency, and for all the good moments and glimpses of quality play, his errors come fast and frequent. Move along.

Thomas Partey – This is about some people’s belief that he was a poor signing. Look, it is way to early to make any kind of statement like that. We haven’t seen him and we haven’t partnered him well. We leave him very isolated in the midfield and the moments we don’t he looks very, very nice. If you want to say a midfielder of his profile wasn’t the top priority, you’re probably right, but our top prospect fell through and letting both go would have been a mistake. Glad he is on board, excited for him to be back and in the mix, even more exited for when we do get that more attack minded partner for him. He is going to be great.

That’s what I got for now! Let me know which ones you agree with, I’m sure I don’t need to ask you to let me know which you DON’T agree with — generally people are good at that. But that’s what I enjoy about this. Love the interaction and conversation.

Brighton coming up on Tuesday! Match preview coming your way. Enjoy the day!

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