In last summer’s transfer window, Arsenal made a number of short term moves, looking to capture the improved form from the turn of the year that saw the Gunners win the FA Cup. To that end, Arsenal turned the loan of Cédric Soares into a permanent move, signed Willian, extended the contract of David Luiz, and most significantly, re-signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to a bumper new deal. The big expenditure in the transfer market was more mixed: Gabriel Magalhães was signed for a large fee at the age of 22, while the biggest expenditure of the summer went to Thomas Partey, who, at age 27, is more of a ready-made player in his prime.
The results of that summer are not great: Willian was a complete failure, Cédric ended up third on the depth chart at right back and even lower at left back, and while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s poor season has reasonable external reasons, it was still an underperformance. David Luiz was mostly good and missed, while Thomas Partey struggled with form and fitness. The undoubted success of last season’s transfer window was Gabriel—who was also the youngest player signed.
In that sense, the summer backfired: on Arsenal, on Mikel Arteta, and on Edu, who, after the mutual separation (sacking of) Raul Sanllehi, tied himself to Arteta. But Arsenal finished 8th, for the second consecutive season, outside of Europe for the first time in twenty-five years, and the realization that things needed to change very differently.
This summer, then, has been different. Arsenal have signed two players so far: Nuno Tavares, who is 20, and Albert Sambi Lokonga, who is 21. Kieran Tierney, 24, and Emile Smith Rowe, 20 for a few more days, signed new contracts, and Arsenal’s next signing is assuredly going to be Ben White, who while an expensive purchase, is also 23. That is a pattern, and not only a pattern, but a plan: to build around a younger team, with a core of key players who are under 25, supplemented by older players in key positions, such as Thomas Partey in midfield, and Aubameyang upfront.
This might seem like Project Youth, Mk II. But there is a key difference. Firstly, Project Youth under Arsène Wenger was cheaper than the alternative, and Arsenal, at that stage, couldn’t afford to go after bigger, established players. Arsenal’s financial expenditures in this window have not been cheap, because football has, over the last decade, learned of the value in bringing players at a young age, who have re-sale value, but also the capacity to grow and develop at a club, allowing the club to benefit not only financially, but on the pitch. Essentially, Europe’s biggest clubs have learned the bar the elite, it is better to sign a 22-year old than a 28-year old of the same quality.
It is now the job of the club to develop the players—a new core of players. In that sense, Mikel Arteta’s future is not dependent on whether Arsenal achieve top 4 this season or not. That is obviously crucial, but what is paramount to that is that the players under 25 develop, because that will become the backbone of any future success. In that sense, it is the similarity and difference to the first iteration of Project Youth. Arsène Wenger’s success during that period was the development of the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Adebayor, and countless others.
Yet the difference is that Wenger had a track record of developing players, specifically younger players, at Arsenal. Arteta has no such record. In that sense, moving to younger players is a gamble for Arteta. There is more opportunity for error and mistakes, ones that could cost him his job. But whereas last season’s failure cost Arsenal time, as they mortgaged a year of the future to go after the present, Arsenal’s future is a little more secure by pursuing this strategy. With a younger core of talent, it is easier to move players on, not take a financial hit, and rebuild more quickly. It is a lesson that Arsenal should’ve learned earlier, but after two years of incoherent planning, the club appear to at least have come up with a unified strategy.