(Note: this post was written before the news that Gary Cahill is being linked to a loan move to Arsenal, which further cements the narrative of the post)
Rumors have been floating about the past few days that Sevilla’s Ever Banega is close to reuniting with his old boss Unai Emery during next month’s transfer window. Banega, a fine player, would fit in well with most setups in clubs who strive to compete for the highest-possible honors. The underlying, more pressing issue, however, is his age and what it really means for a club that’s in the kind of state that Arsenal is in.
You see, as we all surely know by now, Arsenal is a club in transition, not unlike what Manchester United has gone through since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but unlike what Liverpool has gone through much of the Premier League era; this is not a club that’s suffered an inability to achieve consistent table results, until the final years of Arsene Wenger saw the league shift towards smaller clubs like Tottenham achieving maximum results as a result of maximum efficiency. Transitions at this level, where resources are finite and self-manufactured, take time, especially when part of the transition is moving on from a culture that existed for the better part of 22 years. This was evident the day of Wenger’s resignation, and it was evident the day of Emery’s unveiling. It’s been a message that, while the goal of returning to the Champions League was ever-present, has stayed consistent during these first few months of Emery’s tenure.
However, something doesn’t smell right with the Banega link.
If one agrees that the club is in transition, then as we’ve seen with how Liverpool and Tottenham – clubs who also, relatively, spend what they earn – it should stand to reason that transitions take time. As it currently stands heading in to the match tomorrow, Liverpool have allowed seven goals through 19 matches, a phenomenal achievement to date considering how porous at the back they were just 12 months ago. Mauricio Pochettino has been with Spurs for almost five years and only now, halfway through this season, has them within striking distance of first place, quite a phenomenal achievement for vagrant hobos in a league set up to fail outfits like them.
So if we agree that time should be afforded to Emery to transition the club away from Wenger and into a unit that befits his style of play, the link to Banega should, at minimum, raise a few questions. The first one being: why Ever Banega?
While he’s a talented player (which is not what the post is about), Ever Banega is also 30 years old and in the twilight of his prime. Spending £18 million on him, in the middle of the season, while getting rid of a younger player in Aaron Ramsey, doesn’t exactly go along with the idea that this club has a three-year plan to remake the squad. If Emery trusts Banega to do a job for him, given his past experience with the player, that’s fine, but it’s also a lot of money to spend for a player to perform the kind of magic that Ramsey, who will be leaving on a free transfer and not bringing in any fees to subsidize the Banega move, delivers on a constant basis from the same spot on the pitch.
If Emery only trusts Banega, a former player of his, to do the job, at the very beginning stages of the transition from Wenger, then the question of “what sort of pressure is Unai Emery already facing?” is a very logical one to ask. Why are valuable resources being diverted away from young, promising players and instead being spent on 30 year-old center midfielders (of which, absent Ramsey, the club has plenty to choose from)? Heading into this season, Arsenal had the 7th oldest squad (the only older ones being West Ham, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Cardiff, Brighton, and Burnley – clubs Arsenal should not be in contention with, in any sort of manner). The very last thing they should be doing is looking to push up higher on that list, again, if they’re looking to transform into a sustainable squad capable of making multiple Champions League appearances in the face of competition that’s already achieved similar transitions.
Is this Emery’s doing, that he only trusts Old Dudes to do the work that Young Dudes cannot? He’s played Matteo Guendouzi ahead of the aforementioned Ramsey most of the season, which potentially pokes a hole in that theory, but is this being put on Emery to close gaps with short-term solutions, or else consequences are to be suffered? That seems unlikely, given what we know about Arsenal and their inability to react quickly to dire situations. Banega doesn’t seem like he’s the end-result of Sven Mislintat’s scouting report considering he is quite literally a former player of Emery, so what is it? If Emery was afforded time to bleed in players who conceivably have the prime of their careers in front of them, results be dammed, he wouldn’t loan out Calum Chambers, he wouldn’t sign Ever Banega at the expense of Aaron Ramsey, he wouldn’t play a nearly-dead Stephen Lichtsteiner ahead of a fully-healthy Ainsley Maitland-Niles. If the expectation this season is to finish in the top-four, then it’s an unfair expectation placed on Emery, but given what we know about the state of the club prior to his arrival combined with where the competition is for those places that’s probably not the case in this situation.
Which leads to the thought of: is this how Unai Emery sees Arsenal transitioning from Arsene Wenger? And, if so, is this plan doomed to fail? Unfortunately we won’t know how this all ends until much later in the future, but there’s enough evidence now to make one wonder what exactly is going on at the club, and who’s pressuring who.