It’s easy to be despondent about Arsenal at the moment. The North London club are currently somewhere between a sleeping giant and an internet meme after the Gunners failed to qualify for European competition for the first time in half a century and have suffered their worst start to a league campaign since 1954/55.
Mikel Arteta’s side have looked toothless so far this season – with three losses out of three, zero goals scored, and nine goals conceded – and have been bullied by Manchester City and Chelsea. The discourse around the club has only been trending in one direction, and you would be hard-pressed to find some optimism about Arsenal on the interweb.
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However, negativity festers like wildfire on the internet, and contrary to popular belief, there is a strategy and process at Arsenal that fans should get around. It is difficult to see with the chaos and outrage that surrounds the club at the moment, but if you look past the noise, Arsenal are more well suited for long-term success compared to the current expectations.
Firstly, some context needs to be applied to the three defeats at the start of the season. Arsenal suffered a Covid-19 outbreak in their squad that has caused important players like Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ben White to sit on the sidelines alongside last season’s summer signings Thomas Partey and Gabriel. Arsenal and Arteta have spent heavily in the transfer market, but the Spaniard still hasn’t been able to use most of his shiny new toys so far this season. In fact, 11 of the 14 players who featured against Manchester City on Matchday 3 were players who have been at the club since the Wenger era.
Add to the fact that Arsenal lost two games to last season’s Champions League finalists and the two best sides in Europe, and realistically, the only unforgivable points the Gunners have dropped this season were against Brentford on opening night.
Arsenal have been mismanaged at an executive level since the latter days of the Arsene Wenger x Ivan Gazidis era, and the lack of long-term thinking was exacerbated by the power vacuum created when those two leading figures left the club in 2018.
There has been over half a decade of incompetence which has decayed the foundations of Arsenal, and this period of chaos behind the scenes has translated into poor player and coaching recruitment.
Consequently, the current board and manager have had to undo the mistakes made by past regimes and complete a systemic restoration of the club – which takes time.
The primary task on that agenda was to rid the squad of the toxic personalities on bloated wages that don’t fit the desired style of play. Although the implications of Covid-19 have thrown a spanner in the works of this process, Arsenal have moved on the likes of Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, David Luiz, Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira amongst others in the past year.
This squad cleansing and restoration is still an ongoing process, but with Hector Bellerin going out on loan and Lacazette and Leno set to leave in 2022 when their contracts expire, the squad at Arteta’s disposal is looking increasingly balanced compared to what it was two years ago.
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In terms of the incomings, Arsenal have done brilliantly to address the correct profiles needed in the squad with players that raise the floor of the team while also addressing important issues in the starting XI. Thomas Partey (CM) and Gabriel (LCB) were signed in the summer of 2020 to improve the spine before six new additions were made this window to bolster the squad.
Of those six additions, Martin Odegaard (CAM), Ben White (RCB), Takehiro Tomiyasu (RB) all go straight into key areas of the first XI that needed upgrading while Albert Lokonga (CM), Nuno Tavares (LB) and Aaron Ramsdale (GK) are important backups that raise the level of the overall squad depth.
Moreover, the common denominator amongst those six signings is that – crucially – they are all incredible technicians that improve the quality of Arsenal’s build-up play and are perfect for Arteta’s style while also all being under 23 with significant resale value and room to improve.
Arsenal already possess one of the best crops of youngsters in Europe with players such as Bukayo Saka (20), Gabriel Martinelli (20), Emile Smith Rowe (21), Kieran Tierney (24), Gabriel (23), Folarin Balogun (20) and William Saliba (20). Adding six more pre-prime players into the mix with high ceilings consolidates the squad even further and ensures that the long-term health of the club is in good hands.
This strategy employed by the club is known as buying players with similar timelines. The timeline philosophy is popular in the modern NBA but quite rare in European football, and involves building a core of players whose ages are similar, so they peak at the same time and perform at the highest level together. For clubs like Arsenal without endless pits of cash – this is a viable strategy to ensure they can compete for the major honours alongside the state-backed teams. In the NBA, the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers have currently employed this strategy, while Liverpool have done the same successfully under Jurgen Klopp in the last five years.
Arsenal have suffered from short-termism in recent times with the signings of Willian, David Luiz among others, but this change in strategy with a long-term view corrects the course for the club and allows Arsenal to compete with the best teams in England and Europe in the long term.
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The thinking behind this philosophy is that this Arsenal squad will progress with players such as Saka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, White, Gabriel etc. entering their primes around the same time that the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool will come towards the end of their cycle and decline as their squad ages. Pep Guardiola has already stated he will leave Manchester City in 2023, while Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool have struggled to reinvest in their squad, who are all approaching the wrong side of 30.
This is the unified long-term vision Arsenal believe in, and the foundations of it can already be seen through the restructuring of the academy (Per Mertesacker), recruitment department, analytics and playing squad.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done for this plan to fully come to fruition, and the Gunners are still firmly in the middle of the rebuild. Players like Lacazette, Leno, Chambers, Mari, Kolasinac, Holding and even Aubameyang and Pepe need to be phased out over the next few windows while also adding elite quality and leadership at centre-forward (Alexander Isak, Lautaro Martinez), central midfield (Yves Bissouma) and in goal (Andre Onana) to complement the young core.
It is impossible to judge the short-term results based on a sustainable long-term plan, but like a Chinese bamboo tree that spreads its roots for years before growing over 90 feet tall in a matter of months, Arsenal and Arteta have slowly built the foundations of an incredibly successful club considering the mitigating circumstances. And it’s only a matter of time before this project explodes into life.
[Image Credit: Arsenal]