With a six-week break until Arsenal play competitive football again, Mikel Arteta and Edu have plenty of time to map out Arsenal’s transfer strategy for January. I’m not exactly sure how the meetings between the manager, the technical director and the Kroenkes are organized, but one imagines that there is a measure of negotiation and compromise.
The manager’s and technical director’s jobs depend on results and the better players they can sign, the more likely it is that the team will get good results. Owners want this too, of course, but they pull the strings and we all know the tension (healthy and unhealthy) that exists at the top of organizations over budgets.
From an Arsenal perspective, I think Arteta and Edu would always want another wide player in January, regardless of how the season played out. Essentially, the team started the season with three proven forwards (Saka, Martinelli and Smith Rowe) and one of them has been injured for most of the season.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have started every Premier League game this season. Of the club’s 21 matches so far this season, across all competitions, he has featured in 20 each. At elite clubs, wide forwards are often among the most rotated and substituted players, due to the physical demands of their position and the fact that they are less dependent on stability and partnerships than backbone players.
In short, both have played more football than Arsenal would have probably wanted and that would probably have been the case even if Smith Rowe had been fit. We know that the club made a great play for Raphinha this summer, so they were not blind to this critical point in the team.
My reading is that Arsenal probably planned to sign another wide player at the end of the summer, once a little more cleaning up of the team has been done and space has been freed up. Then a couple of events conspired to change his plans. First of all, Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny were injured in the last days of the window.
That meant that instead of going after the full forward, they spent deadline day in a wild goose chase with Aston Villa and Douglas Luiz. Clearly it would have been wise to sign Luiz, a good player but none Arsenal have shown particular interest in before.
His agent is Kia Joorabchian and Arsenal could have reasoned that, as they did with David Luiz on transfer deadline day in 2020, they could secure an emergency Brazilian through a sympathetic agent. It didn’t happen and in hindsight I imagine Arteta and Edu would have preferred to secure that extra wide player at the end of the window.
Reiss Nelson also picked up an injury in the final days of the transfer window and this probably messed things up a bit as well. I’m sure he would have been one of the players cleared to make room for a new wing man. An injury ended with a move and that probably made things a little more difficult.
Essentially, Reiss Nelson and Marquinhos have been “sharing the job” in that fourth wide-man role. Reiss Nelson has 65 minutes in the Premier League this season in two secondary appearances, 64 of them coming at home against Nottingham Forest. Marquinhos has a single Premier League minute to his name.
That tells you everything you need to know about a key shortage in this Arsenal squad. Getting an extra forward isn’t just about protecting Saka and Martinelli and a smooth rotation, it’s about being able to transform games off the bench. So far this season, the team hasn’t had much of a reason to do that, only Manchester United and Fulham have led them so far.
At Southampton and Leeds, Arsenal struggled to change the pattern of games when they couldn’t control games in the second half. At times, he has also not been able to offer enough counter-attacking threat when leading games. Just look at the table below which shows the minute, the score and the player who came on each time Martinelli and Saka have been substituted in the Premier League so far this season.
Martinelli substitutions Saka substitutions 3-0 (75 minutes- Nketiah)4-2 (84 minutes- Smith Rowe) 3-0 (78 minutes- Nketiah)3-0 (88 minutes- Tierney) 4-0 (63 minutes- Fabio Vieira )2-1 (88 minutes- Holding) 1-0 (89 minutes- Holding)3-0 (90+2 minutes- Marquinhos) 3-2 (90+4 minutes- Fabio Vieira) 1-0 (82 minutes- Holding ) ) 1-0 (27 minutes- Nelson) 2-0 (90+1 minutes- Nelson)
In addition to this, it should be noted that both stayed at Fulham (it was 1-1 in the 88th minute), Manchester United (lost 3-1), Spurs (3-1 and a man up) and Saka came out in the 94th minute against the Liverpool. Those substitutions paint a picture. None of them were trying to seriously transform Arsenal’s attacking options. It was all about wasting time/preserving results or just resting some weary legs with the game already won.
That shows us that Arsenal have dealt with an over-reliance on Martinelli and Saka so far this season. Smith Rowe’s return from injury goes a long way to alleviate that, but Nelson remains in the departure lounge and Arteta has already spoken about a possible January loan for Marquinhos once the Europa League group stage and the Carabao Cup out of the way.
While I think Arteta and Edu (and probably the Kroenkes) were determined to try a forward back in January, the manager and technical director probably now have more leverage to increase spending. They could take a calculated bet that Champions League qualification next season looks likely enough to start spending part of the winnings now.
They could also reason that Arsenal might not have as good a chance as this to win the Premier League again. With cash on hand for clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and now Newcastle (Liverpool could also get new owners soon), this window may not open again for a few years.
Or, they could use that reasoning to persuade the Kroenkes to really push the boat and fund a new midfielder as well. Partey, or more specifically Partey’s endorsement, is a single point of failure on the team and his absence during the final weeks of last season had a devastating impact.
I think we could see how Arteta currently sees the potential of Sambi Lokonga from the attempt to bring in Douglas Luiz on deadline day. Remember that Partey was only injured for three weeks (although there would have been justified concern about repeat injuries) while Elneny was out for just over six weeks.
They weren’t especially long-term problems either, but they were enough to convince Arteta to re-prioritize reinforcing the midfield. Sambi would probably be better off if he went on loan in January to get him back into regular playing time again. It must have been difficult for him to go from Anderlecht captain to Arsenal substitute.
Ultimately it looks like he’s falling into Nuno Tavares’ “not quite” envelope, Elneny’s contract was only renewed for a year last summer for good reason. Clearly Arsenal have the summer of 2023 earmarked for at least one heavyweight midfield acquisition and perhaps there’s an appetite to bring that forward as well. Either way, I always expected Arsenal to be active in January, the only question in my opinion is how active they want to be.
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