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Arsenal have a transfer and recruitment problem

The Gunners have not spent well, and they’re reaping what they’ve sown.

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Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

Arsenal are off to their worst league start since 1981-82. They are mired in 15th place in the table. They’ve managed just 10 goals, the lowest total in the Premier League for a team not currently in a relegation place. Depending on how you categorize the corner kick routine goal against Wolves, Arsenal haven’t scored from open play in the PL since October 4th against 20th place, one-point Sheffield United. It’s bad.

It’s difficult, no, impossible, to single out one thing as the root cause of the problems at the club. There are too many. As noted, the attack is virtually non-existent. The emphasis on “crosses” to generate offense is misplaced. The roster is mid-table level at best and haphazardly constructed, caught between what looks to be a win-now mandate and a build-for-the-future reset.

As Aidan wrote last week, Arsenal need to pick one or the other: win-now or reset. But I don’t have confidence in the hierarchy at the club, even if they pick one of those options and stick to it, to get it right. If we believe what club executives have consistently said over the past five years, Arsenal don’t have a lot of money to spend. The club finding the funds for Nicolas Pépé’s record signing last summer and the deadline day splash for Thomas Partey cuts against that party line, but we can probably say that Arsenal don’t have the money to “miss” that often in the transfer market. And they’ve had an alarming number of misses.

Let’s take a look at the Arsenal record transfers. Keep in mind: this isn’t about the players themselves. It’s to shine a light on the people who decided that these particular players were the right ones on which to spend massive amounts of money.

1. Nicolas Pépé - £72M
I standby what I wrote a few weeks ago — the Pépé signing is the worst in Arsenal history. It has been an abysmally poor return on investment. He was brought in to be a creative, scoring threat, and he hasn’t managed half the offensive production he had in Ligue Un. Yes, he compares favorably with his Arsenal teammates’ production since joining the club, but the club needs more than that from a record signing.

Consider: Bruno Fernandes, who was one year older than Pépé at time of transfer, will have cost £5M less even if all the add-ons are hit. Christian Pulisic, who was four years younger when he moved, cost £14M less. Kai Havertz, who was also four years younger when he moved, cost £10M less in the post-COVID market.

*I’ll note (again) that Arsenal seems to have already recognized how awful this transfer was and fired its architect, Raul Sanllehi, as a result.

2. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - £56M
This season’s goal-drought notwithstanding, the Aubameyang signing has been a great one for Arsenal. He carried the scoring load and has been the Gunners’ best player since his arrival. He’s been so good that he has masked some of the deeper issues with the attack. Now that his individual brilliance isn’t on display, those problems are shining through.

Less good is the massive contract the club gave him over the summer. He current slump makes that contract look worse, but there were plenty of people sounding alarm bells about giving significant money and term to an over-30 striker. I wanted to see Arsenal keep him and was happy with the new deal, and I just kinda hoped he’d buck the trend and continue scoring apace. I also felt Arsenal didn’t really have a choice but to keep him, possible warts and all. They couldn’t let him walk for free.

3. Alexandre Lacazette - £52M (with bonuses)
As excited as people were (myself included) that Arsenal brought in a shiny, new attacker when they signed Lacazette, he hasn’t really worked out like we’d hoped. His PL goal totals have gone down each year, and he hasn’t once cracked 20 league goals, which he did in France in the three years prior to joining Arsenal. Has he been better than Olivier Giroud, who he was brought in to replace was? Probably not, at least not appreciably better.

And while Lacazette was at the club first, he doesn’t really mesh well with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. To wit, Arsenal have won 50% of the PL matches Aubameyang has started without Lacazette and only 41% when they’ve started together. That’s not a knock on either player. It speaks more to poor roster construction — having two expensive strikers who don’t play well together.

4. Thomas Partey - £45M
It’s too soon to assess the Partey signing, but adding a 27-year old midfielder is a win-now move. By the time the current crop of young players at the club are in their prime (think Bukayo Saka), Partey will be outside of his. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Partey filled a massive hole in the current roster. But it circles back to underlying question about the overall plan at the club.

5. Mesut Özil - £42.5M
Mesut Özil was a fantastic signing for Arsenal. He was the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League for multiple seasons and one of the best in Europe. He was also the kind of signing Arsenal need to make; he was 24, a proven player, with several “prime” years ahead of him.

The second contract Arsenal gave him, on the other hand, has been a disaster. His £350K per-week wages have been an albatross and an anchor. It fouled up the wage scale at the club and has supposedly limited the other business Arsenal can conduct. And his performances have not lived up to the sticker price, either.

6. Shkodran Mustafi - £35M
When Arsenal signed Shkodran Mustafi in August 2016, it was the kind of signing the club needed. The Gunners needed a young (Mustafi was 24) centerback to replace the aging combo of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. He was on Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning roster, and Arsenal went 18 games unbeaten with him in the lineup to start his time at the club.

It hasn’t really worked out since. Mustafi hasn’t really developed into the player some thought he could have been given his physical tools, mostly because he has been unable to avoid consistently making questionable decisions on the pitch.

7. Granit Xhaka - £30-35M
I’ve always been higher on Granit Xhaka than most regular Arsenal observers. There was a period of time, including a short spell last season after Mikel Arteta brought him back into the fold, where he was extremely important to the Arsenal setup. That’s been a pretty consistent theme to his time at the club, really. The Gunners are better with him on the pitch than they are without him.

That Arsenal are better with him on pitch is separate from whether he is good enough as a player. He does some things well but is also limited, which in turn limits the setup around him. And to have a guy that you bought less than five years ago at 23 years old, for a then either second or third highest amount in club history, clock in at “I guess he’s around PL starter level” isn’t really what you’re looking for.

In that same window, N’Golo Kanté went to Chelsea for less. İlkay Gündoğan and Gini Wijnaldum also moved for less. If you look beyond central midfielders, Gabriel Jesus and Sadio Mane were sold at the same time for less, too.

8. Alexis Sánchez - £31.7M
Alexis Sánchez was a great purchase. During his time at Arsenal, he was one of the top scoring threats in the Premier League, and the Gunners had a formidable attack. As we are well aware, his time at the club did not end well. His contract ran down, and Arsenal were forced into a swap deal for Henrikh Mkhitaryan that didn’t really work out.

9. Henrikh Mkhitaryan - £27M
It’s fitting that Mkhitaryan comes right after Alexis Sanchez because the pair were swapped for each other in January 2018. The cost of the deal is a bit misleading because in essence it was a straight swap between Manchester United and Arsenal for the pair. Regardless, it’s another deal that didn’t work out. Arsenal and Mkhitaryan mutually terminated his contract before this season so that he could move to Roma and his weekly wages could come off Arsenal’s books.

For what it’s worth, he’s having a solid season in Italy, 6 goals and 6 assists over 15 appearances in all competitions. Sure seems like Arsenal could do with some of that offensive contribution right now.

10. William Saliba - £27M
Like the Thomas Partey transfer, it’s too soon to tell whether the William Saliba signing will pan out. Unlike the Partey transfer, buying Saliba is very much a move for the future at Arsenal. Saliba has had a tough time off the pitch with injuries and family tragedies that has slowed his development and acclimation to North London. That said, the optics of spending that much money on a guy that isn’t anywhere close to the first team aren’t great. He may very well come good down the road, but right now, the significant expenditure only serves to highlight the muddled nature of Arsenal’s transfer policy.

Just barely missing the cut is Lucas Torreira, who cost Arsenal £26M but couldn’t really secure a place at Arsenal. He’s currently on loan to Atletico Madrid, where he played in every match until testing positive for COVID-19 coming out of the November international break. He’s now back available but hasn’t made an appearance.

To be fair, the next three names on the list are Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Magalhaes, and Bernd Leno, all of which are good pieces of business. And looking at the transfer dealings as a whole, Gabriel Martinelli sticks out as Arsenal potentially finding a diamond in the rough, while signing Willian and Cedric to multi-year deals looks terrible.

Hindsight is 20-20 when it comes to player evaluations, and it’s easy to say “Arsenal could have had N’Golo Kante, instead they got Granit Xhaka” when there are plenty of other players who’ve turned out even worse than Xhaka has who were also available when Arsenal made the purchase.

The Pépé business is a disaster. Xhaka and Mustafi fall into the “picked the wrong player, not necessarily a bad player” category. The prices were reasonable, somewhere around the going rate for an international at the time. Lacazette looks more and more like a “picked a bad player” signing, or maybe it’s fairer to categorize it as “the player hasn’t performed well enough to justify the cost.” Ozil, Sanchez, Mkhitaryan and (maybe) Aubameyang fall into a different category, call it “poor secondary business.” The transfers were good, what came after wasn’t. And that matters for a project where you’re trying to assess the ability of the club’s decisionmakers to make good decisions! And as noted, the jury is out on Partey and Saliba.

You’re not going to hit on every transfer, and you’re not going to get the best deal on the best guy in every window. To use a wildly overused sports phrase, you’ve got to “trust the process” to be successful. If you’re making the right kind of signings, you should come out ahead.

That is, if you’re sure you have a good process in place. But as I just explained, the 30,000 foot view reveals a worrying pattern. Arsenal truly “hit” on what, 4 or 5 of those 10 top-dollar signings?

For comparison: Liverpool went 8 for 10. Manchester City went at least 8 for 10. Manchester United are at least 7 for 10. Tottenham are 7 for 10. Chelsea are 6 for 10, and Chelsea have demonstrated an ability and willingness the spend their way out of mistakes that Arsenal do not possess. Now that’s my personal evaluation of how many “hits” the other clubs have gotten on their top-dollar signings — you’re free to take issue with it. But even if you disagree here and there, I think it would be tough to move Arsenal off the worst performance among the Big 6.

There are more layers of the onion to peel here and more reasons to question Arsenal’s current setup and plan. There are also reasons to have some confidence that things might be heading in the right direction. Originally, I wrote another 2000 words about all that and more, but I’ve decided to split that into it’s own post. Be on the lookout tomorrow.