Let me start by saying that this section is not following transfer talk and rumours, I will not consider the commercial value of the players that will be mentioned here. The goal is to give you my personal opinion about the problematic areas of the team, suggestions in the form of incoming transfers or prospects coming from the Development Center of Arsenal. Of course, due to the current pandemic, the economic status of the club is shaken, but this is true for all clubs in Europe. Another restriction that will affect recruitment in the following years is the Brexit impact on football. That’s why I cannot easily suggest transfers from not very renown leagues. Hence, I will try to make suggestions that are feasible in terms of value and current club position. Any recruitment would mean nothing without a proper identification of the major pitfalls of the squad. The key area I have identified is the Central Midfielder position, the no.10 and the Striker. So let’s dive into it
One of the glaring issues of the squad is a central midfielder that is essentially a ball carrier. The major job of a ball carrier would be to move with the ball vertically along the pitch and create space for the wingers or the playmaker of the team. Ideally, this player would be physically strong and spatially aware, in order to contribute to opposition counter attacks.
While stats may indicate differently as you can see below, I would argue otherwise.
Definitely, Ceballos trying to be that player, most of the times that he carries the ball is to move himself out of defensive position and does not result in creating space for other players around him. Certainly it is useful to be able to draw the press into yourself and be able to get away from it, but it is not very useful in the role the Gunners are missing. Compare the Arsenal midfielders stats with Leicester midfield.
As you see, Leicester carries the ball forward much more, higher up the pitch and with far more accurate passes. That is the kind of player Arsenal is missing right now.
My first option is Yves Bissouma from Brighton. Standing at 1.81m tall, he certainly has the statue of the player that any Premier League would find useful. The 24 year old is spending his 3rd season in Brighton and seems to have adapted well in the pace of the League. And he has been a ball carrier consistently throughout his career so far.
However, due to his amazing job he is doing in Brighton, the fee to lure him out of Brighton right now would not make sense for Arsenal to pay, in the current economic situation.
Ryan Gravenberch is making his name in the Dutch League the last two years, playing for Ajax and making his presence known in the team sheet. And that’s not difficult for him, not just because he is 1.9m tall, but because of his incredible spatial awareness. Looking at his total contribution in the team, Ajax score 3.07 more goals when he is on the pitch than when he is not.
However, he has drawn a lot of attention from major clubs from Europe, so if Arsenal manage to persuade him to join, that would be a recruitment miracle.
My personal suggestion is Boubakary Soumare from Lille. The 21 year old is the most balanced one in this list, providing support offensively and defensively.
Looking at his ball carrying ability in the midfield 3rd of the field, and his distribution through all of his career in Lille, you can understand what impact a player like him would have on the pitch. Playing the Frenchman alongside Partey, would work wonders offensively and defensively, as the pair could cover each other depending on the situation the team is found. Soumare is capable of dynamic runs vertically and with his height (1.88m) he can win headers in the midfield. Also, he is 21 years old, meaning that he has already some years of experience and could potentially be sold later in his career for profit.
When talking about transfers, the discussion will inevitably go to the attacking midfielder role. Let’s not talk about Ozil, it doesn’t matter anymore, and I would even say it’s not healthy for the team to talk about Ozil. Eitherway, Arsenal need an attacking midfielder, whether Ozil stays until the summer or not.
Why does Arsenal need an attacking midfielder though? Because simply, in most occasions, there is no player in the half spaces that is able to run at defenders and pick these pockets of tight spaces. Let’s look at an example of Willian, that is supposedly one of the creative players on the pitch.
As anyone can see, this is not a player that moves in pockets of spaces, this is a classic heatmap of a winger. A heatmap that would be more representative would be this one.
This actually leads me to the first -and main- player to suggest for this position, the South Korean Lee Kangin. Kangin currently plays in La Liga for Valencia, and lately has been impressing with his excellent positional awareness and impact on the game. Playing for a majorly underperforming Valencia, he has been one of the few shining lights of the season, producing 0.81 “Goal creating actions per 90”. While it would appear to be a gamble to invest in a player so young and unproven in the Premier League, his positioning and burst of pace and energy is something that is missing from the central areas of the pitch. That is also very helpful when pressing high, something that Kangin has already shown to do really impactful at Valencia.
The second also young prospect I want to talk about, is a favourite of mine (due to Belgian connections) even though I don’t think it is a better fit than Kangin. Standing at 1.85m tall, Ketelaere would adapt easily to the physicality of the League. In his most recent Champions League campaign, he played in all group matches, starting 5, showing how vital he is for his current club, Club Brugge. Let’s see though why he fits this Arsenal team. He has excellent link-up play and ability to score, something that is desperately missing from the Gunner’s midfield since the departure of Ramsey.
He has scored 3 times this season so far, which is not bad for a 19 year old player, since in most of them he showed the ability of a potent finisher in the box. While many would disagree right now, I think De Ketelaere would be a perfect companion to a strong Target Man in the box, playing between the lines and creating uncertainty to the opposition defence.
Another player that would fit Arsenal’s mentality, is Mohamed Ihattaren from PSV. The 19 year old has already 45 appearances in the Dutch league and is the most expensive player on this list. Able to play in tight spaces, he can play in either left or right half spaces, as shown here.
He has impressed a lot of people in Europe, with major teams looking at his development. However, his game has an obvious weakness. Despite his immense talent and potential development, right now he is not physically strong enough or adept enough to the higher pace of the Premier League, and I think he would struggle at this point of time to find enough game time to develop.
Last but not least, an academy product, Emile Smith-Rowe, could be the temporary answer this season for the attacking midfielder role. The 20 year old had impressed in his most recent loan spell at Huddersfield, he was unlucky and picked in injury that hindered his chances of finding game time during Arteta’s era so far. However, he is undoubtedly talented and his game style is quite unique for an Englishman. He is smart on how to position his body in tight spaces, he can pick a pass and run a defender or two. He reminds me of an early Jack Wilshere, minus the tenacity and boxer-like mentality.
He likes to operate in the half spaces, playing one-two combinations with his teammate and moving forward dynamically, with or without the ball.
Smith-Rowe definitely deserves a chance* to prove himself in this dire season, and hopefully he can be one the reasons to love this football club again, alongside the other talented youngsters.
*This article was drafted before the recent games that Emile Smith Rowe has featured in the Premier League
Arsenal has been very lucky to have two of the most coveted Strikers in Europe of the last decade, even though their recent form suggests otherwise. Lacazette and Aubameyang could slot in any major European side and could be an important player in their team. In that sense, talking about attacking reinforcement may seem a bit strange, but I think there is a big risk that if Arsenal don’t act soon to find a replacement for these two, they will have a greater problem in this position in the coming years. So, the players that are below are intended to work as future prospects under the guidance of Aubameyang and/or Lacazette. As you may have noticed, I don’t mention Nketiah, and that is because I don’t think Nketiah is a good fit for Arsenal as a sole Striker. He is someone that works very well alongside a more technical attacker, but the 4-4-2 era is long gone. His stats are worrying, even for his age.
During possession, he has dispossessed the ball far too often, has a 50% chance of dribbling the ball and 50% chance of receiving a pass successfully. He is a very good player in a counter attacking team (see Leicester, Wolves, etc) but for a typically possession based team he is not suitable enough. Let’s look then to some other young options.
Hailed as one of the members of the next “Golden generation” of young Ukrainian footballers, Vladyslav Supriaha is one of the quickly rising Strikers of the Ukrainian football. At 1.82m tall, the 20 year old has the body type of a modern Target Man, strong but agile. Having already scored 16 goals in the league during the last two campaigns, this season he played in all 6 Champions League group matches with his team Dynamo Kiev. He has shown great composure and anticipation inside the box, and he showcases great spatial awareness and timing in his runs.
In the above instances with his smart movement, he placed himself to score an easy tap in. Supriaha is definitely a hard sell to the illustrious Premier League transfer frenzy but he is worth a shout as a young and potent goal scorer.
Folarin Balogun is another academy prospect that is showcasing great composure and spatial awareness, and is definitely very talented. His future still remains unclear though, since he still hasn’t signed a new contract at the Emirates. Balogun has the physicality and the technique needed to play in the Premier League even though right now he is too far down the pecking order. He has been a profound goal scorer in every development Arsenal team so far, and managed to get some game time in the first team this season, mainly in the Europa League games. However he has a lot of work to do, and more importantly (from the club point of view) secure a new deal with the club to continue improving under Arteta.
My pick for this position is Alexander Isak. The Swedish striker is currently playing in La Liga for Real Sociadad, but his biggest step in his career so far was his transfer to Borussia Dortmund in 2017. Isak a classic Striker, likes to move in the middle of the pitch and has great physical presence in the box.
His height is one of the biggest assets, standing at 1.9m tall, but he is not shy of pace either. That helps his game as he can move laterally in between the defenders very quickly and convert the chances that he gets.
One of the biggest traits that Isak has compared with the other candidates I mentioned above, is the tactical familiarity with the way Arsenal plays. Real Sociedad play with a quick tempo, building the attack from the back, and many times Isak is asked to drop very deep (like Lacazette does right now) to help with the build up.
Also, Real Sociedad are a high pressing team, currently 2th in total successful pressures at the attacking 3rd of the pitch in the La Liga (only behind Eibar), and Isak has helped a lot in this department.
If you reached this point and read though the stats that I provided above you may have noticed a trend in the recommendations: all of the players are in the early or very early stages of their careers and they are still developing. Investing in a developing player is always a risky move, but I think this is the route Arsenal should follow to avoid the contract situation we are in right now, players on insanely high wages, with contracts running down and no plan for structured deals. I hate to say this, but Tottenham has done an amazing job with their contract handling so far, and we should look to adopt a similar strategy. It is not easy and this situation is not going to change from one transfer window to another, but it is important to realise the bigger picture here and if the board of directors can realise it too.
By Stelios Mouratidis