Arsenal Insider Round Table: The Post-January State of the Squad

Arsenal

Arsenal Football Club might have been the most talked about club during the January transfer window. No top team made as many moves as the Gunners, and so we have asked the writers of Arsenal Insider to give their take on how much they liked the moves in January, and what chances Arsenal have to finish the season on a high note. The answers might just reveal something that has been elusive to Gooners over the last several seasons: hope.

Ben

Dortmund staff coming in?

It was before the winter transfer window: Sven Mislintat, chief scouting at Dortmund, came from Germany to Arsenal after ten years discovering and signing young talent. Mats Hummels, Jakub Blaszyczkowski, Neven Subotic, Sven Bender, Robert Lewandowski, Lukasz Piszczek, Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa, Ivan Perisic, Lucas Barrios, Marc Bartra, Sebastian Rode, Marco Reus, Julian Weigl, Andre Schurrle, Roman Burki, Matthias Ginter, etc. He touched from near and far to all these cases.

What is very weird after this good signature (executed around November 2017) is that Arsenal finished the transfer window with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Eric Aubameyang.

But what is even more interesting is this projection: What if Sven Mislintat’s arrival was part of a plan to Wenger end? Back to the end of 2016-2017 season, Thomas Tuchel left Borussia Dortmund without other opportunities elsewhere. At that time, gossip sensed an arrival at Arsenal to substitute Arsene Wenger during a WengerOut streak.

It’s true that Thomas Tuchel would be a perfect substitute to the French coach. Young with a tactical spirit in harmony with Arsenal philosophy, the German could be the one who will take a step to Arsenal. The future will tell us…

Last game pass map

As we can see in the image below, the Gunners played very high on the pitch against Everton. The fact that Everton played with 3 centre-backs, especially with the newcomer Mangala, probably helped.

What is very interesting here is how Arsenal’s formation looks like Manchester City when they press. The two wingers very heigh with a midfielder staying back (just position comparison, Xhaka/Fernandinho) and here Iwobi and Ramsey are playing in the same position as David Silva and De Bruyne, forming a line of 4 with one of the wingers (Bellerin or Monreal). In front of them are two attacking players.

In the future it would be attractive to see Lacazette in place of Ozil (as a second striker, like he played sometimes with Lyon) and the German on the wing (probably on the right wing, Mkhitaryan playing on the left, letting Iwobi on the bench). However, this last lineup would be too offensive unless Wenger finds a better balance in the midfield, perhaps Elneny sometimes?

Art de Roché – A Great January that Could’ve Been even Better

As Ben mentions above, we brought in a new scout in Sven Mislintat towards the close of 2017 and we have already seen the direct results of that. Looking at the players arriving at the club it’s clear to see that Mislintat’s decade at Dortmund gives him Arsene Wenger’s respect to the point where he has already influenced our transfers.

Focusing on the high profile arrivals of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, things look very promising for the near future of Arsenal. We saw against Everton how letting a ‘star man’ in Alexis Sanchez go in trade for Mkhitaryan can compliment us with the latter looking a lot more suited to our style in the 5-1 thrashing at Everton. Furthermore, now with two very creative players behind Aubameyang, chances won’t be hard to come by for the striker who has already notched his first goal for the club.

However, as usual, whenever something positive happens there is always a leveller and for me that leveller were the departures of Francis Coquelin and Olivier Giroud.

The French duo both left in search of game time which is understandable from their view, but how Arsenal let their situations get to that point is a mystery to me. With Coquelin being our only defensive midfielder, I felt he should have been given more opportunities, especially considering Granit Xhaka’s form before the turn of the year. As for Giroud, he was given more of a chance and with a World Cup on the horizon I understand his decision, but now we lack a striker who can bring what he brings on a very consistent basis. But, nevertheless, there are reasons to be positive going into the business end of the season.

John Dolan- Final Roll of the Dice

We all know what Wenger is like, he won’t spend unless he needs to, always preferring to build than buy. He maintains that it would be unfair to sign a first team player when he has been cultivating a youth product for many years to play the same position. He gets called stubborn and that he never tries anything out of his comfort zone.

Yet, in one of the most chaotic Arsenal seasons under his reign, he has broken the club transfer record for the second time in six months, allowing major first team players leave, as well as signing one or two massive names.

It would appear that he is making a statement, perhaps a final roll of the dice. He has 18 months left on his current deal, and it is possible that he is making a final flourish, showing his hand in order to compete for big trophies next season. Rather than making big summer signings and hoping they bed in quickly, he is giving Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang half a season to prepare, before going hell for leather and competing for the league next year.

I hope I’m right.

Kevin Coupland – Expectations Exceeded

Anxiety was rife approaching January with the task of replacing Sanchez, especially seeing as we haven’t always replaced elite talent with elite talent. Therefore Aubameyang, a world class forward with an excellent goal-scoring record in the Bundesliga (and in the Champions league) completely exceeded expectations. Add to that Mkhitaryan, who constitutes a perfect Arsenal-type playmaker (as he proved against Everton with three assists) and our offence all of a sudden looks as though it’s back to its rightful world-class level (highly important given our tactical approach is based on exceptional attacking play.) Ozil’s new contract, meanwhile, felt like a pivotal moment in the club’s history, a statement of our ability to retain world class talent.

A commanding centre-back to complement our current stable of defenders and a true defensive midfielder strike me as ongoing skills gaps (if we are to compete for top prizes), but, overall, improving the level of our attack has moved the club into a better position. Given Wilshere’s resurgence in form, the next critical challenge is getting him on a long-term contract.

Barry – Some Good, Some Bad in our Transfer Dealings

The surprising thing about Arsenal’s whirlwind of transfer activities is that it was, shall we say, very un-Arsenal-like. Wenger has been quite vocal about his disdain for the mid-season window (“I believe we have to bring some decency,” the Frenchman said only 5 months ago) and would altogether prefer it scrapped than loom like an angry Chilean cloud in the distance. All the sweeter, then, that it was this month Arsenal decided to fire up the fax machine and engage in a window comparable only to our flurry of business in the summer of 2015 (joking!).

Unlike some pundits in English media, the additions of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan feel like, once again, Arsenal possess the level of gravitas to attract world-class footballers. The Armenian’s style of play has always screamed “he’s a Wenger type of player” since his emergence at Dortmund and that he has now graced London Colney feels somewhat prophetic. Aubameyang, as well, is an early-years Wenger footballer, one who has the necessary pace to cause defences real trouble. While he lacks the dribbling quality of, dare I say, Thierry Henry, his ability to instill fear is easily comparable. Both moves ultimately validate that Wenger wants to build around Ozil since they solve two vexing problems: (1) a centre forward to feast on his passing ability, and (2) another creative outlet up top that can allow the German to fulfil his footballing imagination. No surprise then that the knock-on effect of both players moving in provided the impetus for Ozil to sign a new long-term contract.

While some of the departures are notable for their appearance as a wholesale recalibration of the first team, one outgoing move that is a dangerous avatar of things to come is Marcus McGuane moving to F.C. Barcelona. For a player of such prodigious talent to slip through the cracks seems blasphemous; he only just made his first senior appearance for the club in the Europa League against BATE Borisov. He has the quality of play that is hard to recreate: strong, incisive, a good passer, and one that can fill a real need in the future as he prefers to play in the heart of midfield. Chris Willock leaving for S.L. Benfica felt like a one-off. Now that McGuane left for the sunny shores of Catalonia, it feels symptomatic of a problem Arsenal may have in the future: How do we keep hold of our young talent?

Clayton Maddox – Light at the End of the Tunnel?

As an Arsenal fan in recent years, there have been several points where I thought I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think of the signings of Ozil and Sanchez, when we led the league for most of the 2013-2014 season, when we ended the trophy drought in 2014, and when we won the FA Cup again the next year. At each point, I thought “this is finally the year, good things will happen after this!” However, after all of this, we still don’t have too much to show for it all, and just had the worst season under Wenger (and are having another low season).

Being the optimist that I am, I’m having similar thoughts again. Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are world-class players, Ozil is staying, Sanchez’s bad vibes are gone, and Mislintat and Sanllehi seem capable of ushering in a new era under a soon to be Wenger-less Arsenal. It’s hard not to imagine a bright future. However, it seems as though there’s always something that offsets the positive. Our defence at the moment is certainly one of those things. Considering Steve Bould is only allowed to sit next to Wenger if he keeps his mouth shut (or something like that), it might be several years before our defence is formidable once again. This doesn’t just mean new players. This means new players, new coaches, new strategies, the whole lot.

Regardless, I’m incredibly excited to see where this new team ends up at the end of the season.

Nate Smith – On the Path to Regaining Gooner Trust

Let’s be honest with ourselves, January could have been a disaster. Alexis Sanchez has been a write off in the eyes of most fans since the spring of last year, but Mesut Ozil was always the wild card of the two contract “rebels”. His camp never gave any indication that the German playmaker wanted out and his social media feed always struck a positive chord with hopeful fans, but underneath it all, many wondered if this perception was helped along by a vastly superior public relations team than his former Chilean teammate possessed. However, the fears were all for naught, as his contract renewal was the icing on the cake of a surprisingly productive transfer window.

Losing Alexis may have been hard for a lot of fans to take, but his swap to United for Henrikh Mkhitaryan has produced some sublime early returns, with the Armenian bagging a trio of assists in his first start for the Gunners against Everton, the first at the club to do so since Santi Cazorla in 2013. To make matters even better, Mikki was not even supposed to be the centrepiece of the window (and indeed, many fans were unenthused by initial reports of his inclusion in the Sanchez deal), that distinction belongs to jet-heeled striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The duo formed a brilliant partnership at Dortmund and look set to do the same with Arsenal, where they will be given similar attacking freedom to their days in Germany.

Losing Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin was especially hard to take (sorry Mathieu Debuchy, but let’s be real, you won’t miss us either), but it was a necessary step that needed to be made by the club to move forward. The top-class additions of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi have already lead to a more ruthless look at the squad as the departing players were all loyal servants to the club and personal favourites of Arsene Wenger, but wage bill considerations and a rumoured summer shopping list to make mouths water necessitated their departures.

A Hot Finish 

The January transfer window was about 2 things: replacing Alex Sanchez with enough fire power to make a run at the top 4 in the league while trimming the squad down to create some flexibility with an eye toward the summer. The recent struggles of Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool have given fans hope that a Champions League place could still be in play. Despite one of the most inconsistent seasons Wenger has ever presided over, the Gunners are a couple months of playing football up to their capabilities away from being back in the conversation as a real contender. The media have perhaps been an all-too-willing courier for the “Arsenal are a club in terminal decline,” but finally, there are signs to suggest otherwise.

The Everton match showed a good balance between attack and defence, and it is the latter that will ultimately determine where the Gunners finish this season. They may have run out of time to sign a veteran defender to work into the mix, but Arsenal have plenty of talent to succeed at the back. Their problems are always exacerbated by an over-reliance on attack, leaving their defenders on an island to defend in an impossible situation. If Wenger can achieve that balance, Arsenal are booking their place in the Champions League next season, while European honours this season could still very much be in play. Not bad for a club in a mortal crisis at Christmas, eh?

Vakasha Sachdev – Cautiously Optimistic but Concerned about Central Midfield

Signing Aubameyang was a huge statement of intent for Arsenal and is a clear indicator that we’re trying to return to a more dynamic attacking style. Getting Mkhitaryan as part of the deal which saw Sanchez leave the club was also incredible business – we knew the Chilean wanted out, and we were going to need to replace him, but doing so with someone of the Armenian’s class on an immediate basis, that was new. A new dawn, with the fingerprints of Sven Mislintat and to some extent Raul Sanllehi all over it, which is good in a long-term planning sense as well. The quality of the new signings, the benefits they bring to the table: pace and finishing (Auba) + second creative pivot (Mkhi), will all be a great benefit going forward, both in the short term hunt for 4th place as well as the quest for a title again.

These signings are essential for both those things, but unfortunately won’t be enough if we can’t solve our midfield problem. Much has been made of the need to strengthen our backline, but while another quality centre-back is needed, what’s really killing us has been the lack of steel in midfield. A proper defensive midfielder will help shield even a weakened backline, and not leave us at sixes and sevens when faced with a slightly threatening attack. Ideally such a midfielder should read the game well and have enough pace to cut out passes without having to make heavy tackles, while also being prudent and strong in the tackle. Difficult, yes, but there are players out there. One of the players we should consider there is Ainsley Maitland-Niles who has made a good impression this season when he’s played. Hopefully he’ll be given the chance to do this in the Europa League at least and if it pans out well, will be included in the league squad as well. We’ll still need to go after a DM of real pedigree in the summer, maybe someone like Julian Weigl (though that’s a bit ambitious).

Getting a quality defensive midfielder will also help the attackers thrive, and hopefully allow us to take a shot at playing Lacazette alongside Aubameyang. We haven’t played with two upfronts in years, but two quick strikers who are also pretty good technically (Lacazette in particular looks quite good when he tries to drop deeper and play in teammates) would be fantastic to watch.

Tim Fadipe

The transfer window has come and gone, and quite frankly, I can say that I am extremely pleased. Having got rid of Sanchez and relieved the club of that stress, we managed to bring in Mkhitaryan, an electric striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and a young Greek defender. This has opened up the possibilities for the team on the attacking end as Ozil no longer has to bear the brunt of the creative work and can share the load with Mkhitaryan, whilst also utilising the pace of the striker, which is something we have lacked recently.

However, I was disheartened we sent Giroud off to Chelsea because I felt he was an underrated and important cog in our team. Wenger has discussed the possibility of playing two strikers rather than one, and I had envisioned pairing Aubameyang with Giroud for quite the fruitful partnership. They are extremely different players that I feel would have complimented each other’s games and been a nightmare matchup for opposing teams.

This is all well and good, but Wenger will have a selection headache in naming the right players for the game, while managing to keep everyone happy at the same time. But as for me, I am looking forward to how the team will play domestically and in Europe!

About the Author

Nate Smith
Writer for Arsenal Insider and BorussiaDortmund.co.uk and a wannabe musician, Nate spends his days trying to become smarter than he was when he woke up and laughing at his own terrible jokes. Opinions are (mercifully) his own.