One thing you can say with certainty is that the beginning of the Unai Emery years at Arsenal have been interesting, at least from a transfer rumor perspective. With a squad that’s heavily tilted towards guys that are closer to retirement than peak performance, a lot of us had hoped that Emery would start scouring the market for, primarily, guys in their mid 20’s, who the club could build around for a while and develop into a cohesive team.
Instead, the rumor mill has Arsenal linked with Stephan Lichtsteiner (34), Steven Nzonzi (30 late this year), Sokratis Papastathopolous (also turning 30 this year), and Marouane Fellaini (you guessed it, 30 on the verge of 31). Now, as a person would could realistically be the parent of a 30 year old, I have to say first of all that “old” is a highly relative term, and of course in this piece I will be meaning “sports old” and not “real world old”. And it is also very important to note that all those players are, in fact, only rumored signings at this point; nothing’s solidified and probably won’t be for a bit.
But discussing age and specific transfers is also not the point of this piece. This piece is about how much we need to worry about what Unai Emery wants to do, what Ivan Gazidis wants to do, and how they’re going about doing it.
First of all, I need to define terms a bit. Going forward, I am not going to lay all the blame/credit for what’s happening in the market on any one individual - Gazidis wanted a transfer team, and now he’s got one. Emery was the final piece, but by all accounts, Gazidis/Mislintat/Sanllehi/Emery is the Arsenal Transfer-Doin’ Squad. They had limited impact in the last year of Arsene Wenger, because Wenger had all the power, but now it’s a four-headed monster.
No one individual has ultimate authority, and Emery, unlike Wenger, does not have full freedom to source and sign a player he wants. This discussion, then, will refer to them collectively, largely because it’s not clear who has more authority from day to day.
We’re two weeks into the full new transfer team’s tenure now, and all we can say for sure is that it is primarily linked with older guys on the defensive side of the ball. To a certain extent, this makes sense - with Per Mertesacker retiring and Laurent Koscielny injured and, in all likelihood, done as an Arsenal player at age 33 by the time he’s back, an already weak defense during the season is far weaker right now.
There is definitely some logic in bringing in an older player - they bring a lot of experience, organizational nous, and, for lack of a better way to put it, a calmness that younger players sometimes don’t display. But making Arsenal even older than it is now is very fraught with risk.
WHO SHOULD ARSENAL TARGET, THEN?
I am not the guy to ask for a laundry list of names - I don’t follow other leagues at all and don’t keep up on the latest buzz unless it involves Arsenal. I mean to look at that question more philosophically, and I’ll leave the listing of players to those of you who are more knowledgeable than I.
Arsenal have three very large problems right now, both of which have led to a Master Problem that I will discuss below:
1. The squad is really old.
As shown in the link to Scott’s piece above, the average age of Arsenal right now is nearly 27, and an inordinate amount of playing time is thus given to players 29 and older - 25% of available game minutes went to that age group. That is suboptimal.
2. Arsenal’s defense is really bad.
Arsenal conceded 51 goals last season, by far the worst in the top six (13 more than Liverpool and Chelsea, 15 more than Tottenham, 23 more than Manchester United, and 24 more than Manchester City), and worse than only two other teams in the top 10. Arsenal were far better at home than away (in both wins and, somewhat obviously because of that, goals scored/conceded), but they still gave up more home goals (20) than any top six team, four more than the next-worst in that group.
3. Arsenal are in the Europa League right now.
I like the Europa League. It was fun to watch last season. It is, however, emphatically not the Champions League, which is where young, highly skilled players want to play. As much as we all want Arsenal to be the all-conquering force we all believe they can/should be, right now, they’re an old squad that needs a fair amount of work, playing in a lesser European competition, which is its only practical, short-term route back to the elite European competition we all crave.
A charitable/probably sorta realistic read of “Arsenal want to sign all the olds” is that Emery’s making an all-in push to win the Europa League this year, in which case that’s not a bad strategy. But if that fails, Arsenal are going to find themselves next June where they find themselves now - another year older, in no way closer to the Champions League, and in need of a whole lot of help ASAP.
So what, you ask, is that mystery fourth problem? Well, it’s not really easily bullet pointed, but when you take the two I listed above and add to it Arsenal’s stated budgetary restraints this summer, whether or not they’re being 100% transparent about their budget, the problem becomes pretty clear:
Why would a top-shelf talent, a player who would lead Arsenal to a Champions League return and a league title challenge, come to Arsenal right now?
I don’t ask that question to denigrate Arsenal; I’m genuinely curious. In an era of the game where lesser teams develop good players, who then get sold to ready-built Champions League contenders, Arsenal are very much the former right now. While there are of course exceptions (look no further than Alexandre Lacazette to find one), very few players that want regular Champions League football are going to come to Arsenal barring a massive overpay, which we all know Arsenal won’t do.
So if we assume that Arsenal aren’t attracting the best of the best, what’s left to chase, talent-wise? It would seem that the two remaining buckets of players are labeled “young and unproven” or “old, verging on too old”. Both buckets and acquisition philosophies have their upsides and downsides, of course, and a lot depends on the blend of ages that a club has on its books, so there’s really no one answer to that question, nor is there an answer that’s 100% right or wrong.
I’m not trying to be evasive with all that, I definitely prefer Arsenal go the youngster route as much as possible; I’m just pointing out that there are a billion factors that go into such big club-direction decisions, and I am in no way fluent enough in football to judge them and spit out a definitive answer for Arsenal.
So, here we are, 1200 words in, and I’m finally getting to the point of this piece, which is to ask you a question. We live in an age of instant gratification, of the 24-minute news cycle, and I know the game moves at a zillion miles an hour now and to sit still is to fall behind.
Here’s my question: Given where Arsenal are as a club right now (not where you think they should be/want to be, but where they are - sixth place, Europa League, not really title condending), how much time and patience will you give Unai Emery and the Arsenal Acquisitors to get them to where you think they should be, and how long might be reasonable to keep them relatively insulated from severe criticism as they undertake a fairly significant rebuild?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem expressing unhappiness with an individual move this summer, should a move be made that isn’t great. But here, I’m talking more about the 10,000 foot level, about #(whoever)Out types of sentiments, criticisms that reflect a belief that the team’s whole strategy is failing and needs to be re-done.
Gazidis has been at the helm for almost a decade, so this is his vision, but this is really the first year where he’s been able to fully execute his vision, so I’m going to start the clock on how I react to it from here, not from nine years ago. For me, I’m not going to judge the Transfer Squad either way on the basis of one window - I’ll have a lot more basis on which to form an opinion this time next year, but for now, I’m going to sort of give them a hall pass, grand-strategy wise, while still wondering if Marouane Fellaini is the best use of wage resources they could find.
Does performance in the coming season influence your thoughts about how much time the new regime gets, or for you does a great deal of the coming season, and how you view it, rest on the club’s business this summer?