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Why You Should Be Optimistic About Arsenal

Arsenal Midfielder Matteo Guendouzi

Football is all about passion. Passion is the thing that drives fans through the gates every weekend. It is what brings them back to the sport every season, even if their club fell well short of objectives the previous year. It is what drives a multi-faceted industry of media coverage and social engagement. However, in a business that sees only one club in 20 truly allowed to label their league season a success at the end, positivity and optimism can be especially hard to come by.

Arsenal Football Club is not lacking for passionate fans. As one of the most widely supported clubs in the world, hundreds of thousands of people live and die with their successes and failures. Having experienced the unbridled joy of immortality in 2004 with the Invincibles, thirteen league titles, thirteen FA Cup wins and more, these fans also know what success looks like. But with that success has come expectation, and with a financially-restrictive stadium move coinciding with an untimely rise in the financial might of all within the Premier League, positivity has been a waning commodity over the last decade or so.

For many, the positive vibes around the club reached their lowest ebb in nearly two decades in the final years of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Following his departure at the end of last season, and the appointment of Unai Emery as his successor, the optimism finally returned to many fans who had grown weary of the constant division amongst themselves over the merits of Wenger’s ability to continue to take the club forward. A 22-match unbeaten run early in the season only buoyed that feeling further.

However, as can happen in the ever-changing world of football, that feeling slowly began to fade again as injuries, shocking performances and inconsistent results saw the club return to an increasingly familiar position on the periphery of the top four in the Premier League. Already the questions are mounting as to whether Emery can restore Arsenal to its former glory. The pessimism some thought would not return for some time has taken root again, and the old divisions have emerged again. 

It is a conflicting time to be an Arsenal supporter, and for myself, it is no different. With each passing match, the battle lines shift within one’s mind, the optimism of Arsenal’s new era clashing with the nagging feeling that something is not quite right with the club these days. In this two-part mini-series, I will be discussing the two sides of this internal debate, starting first with the good. Is the glass half-full or is it half-empty? At the moment, I might argue it is twice as big as it needs to be, but that is a discussion for another time…

Short-term pain, long-term gain

Throughout Arsene Wenger’s tenure at the club, he often said that he would like to leave Arsenal in a better state than when he found it. Unfortunately, the awkward limbo the club find themselves in, with a desire to practice financial prudence clashing with a need to return to the lucrative Champions League qualification places, the immediate future looks bleak to some fans. A summer transfer window that saw the club stretch around £70 million to bring in six players to bolster the team, followed by a frustrating January window that saw only the arrival of Denis Suarez from Barcelona on loan, many have taken a fatalistic view of the financial situation heading into the future.

However, as has been discussed elsewhere on this site, this predicament is anything but permanent. The wage bill has ballooned in the last two seasons as Arsenal chase that elusive return to Europe’s premier competition, leaving them very little room to manoeuvre under the very real regulations that govern a club’s spending. And yet, this summer will see much-needed relief arrive in the form of expiring contracts, and given Unai Emery’s preference for a different sort of player to those Wenger coveted, it would be reasonable to expect more departures.

Coinciding with this relief is a new philosophy in respect to contract negotiations, with the much-discussed “socialist wage structure” the club implemented to entice its young talent to stick around during the leanest years following the construction of the Emirates Stadium giving way to more of a “real value” approach. Top-of-the-market players will still be commanding top wages under the new structure, but younger players and those with peripheral roles in the side will be paid more in line with their current value, saving the club money on the bottom-half of the squad.

This approach not only helps the club limit its wage bill growth at the time of signing, but it will also entice players to sign extensions to their contracts with increased wages as their profile within the team grows, thereby extending the club’s control and preserving the player’s resale value. In theory, this should help Arsenal minimise the frequency of the sort of contract impasses that have mired the last two seasons, with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Jack Wilshere all seeing their contracts run down to the very end, handing the players leverage in negotiations in the process. We have already seen the effect of this new approach with new deals being handed to Calum Chambers and Mohammed Elneny over the past year, which will allow the club the fetch closer to their real market value should they find themselves outside the first-team picture going forward.

Qualification for the Champions League would undoubtedly make the task of rebuilding the squad in Emery’s image easier this summer, but simply taking a more judicious approach to contracts and intelligent dealings on the market will go a long way to help, even if Arsenal fall short of their targets this season. With plenty of money in the bank and some genuinely talented pieces to build around in the squad, the future is anything but bleak. However, Arsenal’s newly reshaped backroom staff must have a good summer window for this to work. Another hit or miss window like the previous summer could see Emery severely handicapped going into the second year of his deal, after which lies the ominous spectre of a break clause next summer that could see the club cut ties with the Basque head coach if things don’t improve on the pitch.

A talented squad

After losses and poor performances this season, you often find a variation of this refrain on Twitter: “What did you expect to happen with this mess of a squad that Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis left us.” While it would be difficult to characterise their last few seasons with the club as a resounding success, this is an extremely disingenuous statement. While it is true that Arsenal may currently have the fifth or sixth most talented squad in the Premier League, it could easily be argued that they are still among the top ten to fifteen most talented squads in world football. Everywhere you look, there are full internationals throughout the team, including some that had starring roles for their countries at last summer’s World Cup.

In attack, the Gunners have enough firepower to make most teams green with envy. At the tip of the spear, two of the world’s elite goalscorers in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can score goals for fun on their day. With creative talents like Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi and now Denis Suarez, Arsenal have players capable of providing consistent service to the strike duo (if not the desire to do so, more on this in part two).

The central midfield has been augmented with exciting young talents Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira, who should only improve in the coming years. Even Granit Xhaka, one of the players who splits opinion the most amongst fans, is still a staple in the Arsenal starting XI and carries a career-high estimated value of £50 million according to Transfermarkt, suggesting he is far from the liability that some suggest. Even in defence, universally acknowledged to be the weakest area of the team, the Gunners can claim to have one of the best right-backs in the world in Héctor Bellerin, two promising young centre-halves in Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos, and a veteran trio that, while inconsistent, have all turned out for their countries and have displayed the requisite quality at times in their careers.

In short, there is hardly a lack of talent in the team, but rather a lack of balance and consistency. This is far easier to rectify on the current budget than it would be to build an elite team from scratch, and with proper coaching, there are improvements to be had in the squad as it currently exists. This summer should see Arsenal focus their resources out on the flanks, where, outside of Alex Iwobi, the club find a dearth of options, and in defence, which has been far too leaky this season to satisfy Emery. If the club manage to successfully reload in these positions, it will only help to balance the squad and give Emery the tactical flexibility he has struggled to find this season, even as he shuffles through multiple combinations and formations in search of that balance.

The best class in years?

Even if the summer budget ends up falling well short of what fans are hoping, there may just be a saving grace on the horizon that will require very little outlay to tap into: the youth academy. Currently, the club are in the midst of preparing one of the most talented groups of academy graduates it has seen in years for the rigours of the Premier League. 

Alex Iwobi’s and Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ recent ascensions into regular first-team roles have paved the way for others to follow in their wake. Eddie Nketiah has been knocking on the door the last two seasons, and the 19-year-old striker is a natural goal scorer who the club value highly. Midfielder Joe Willock has come on leaps and bounds over the last year and has established himself as a player with a likely future at the club. 

Both players could very well be a factor in the coming seasons, but it is on the wing, perhaps the thinnest area of the first team squad, where the club should expect to see the largest influx of talent in the coming years. Reiss Nelson will be returning this summer from his first regular foray into top-flight football at Hoffenheim under ascendant young manager Julian Nagelsmann. He is expected to command a much larger role upon his return, with Nelson himself saying he has grown up during his time in Germany and cannot wait to return to Arsenal and establish himself. 

Emile Smith-Rowe, who was just loaned to RB Leipzig in January, was handed 265 minutes by Unai Emery in the Europa League before a hip injury sidelined him for the rest of his Arsenal season. He is currently finishing his rehab in Leipzig and is inching closer to his debut for the exciting East German outfit, but he too is expected to make an impact in a creative role for the Gunners in the coming years. Bukayo Saka (17) and Xavier Amaechi (18) are also highly valued by the club and could be making strides toward regular first-team football next season. With Sako already being handed minutes by Emery this season, the youngster could leapfrog a few of his fellow older graduates up into the first team, and the club feel they have a genuine star on their hands in the young Englishman.

While these may be the most notable players emerging from Hale End in recent years, they are far from the only ones. Players like Arthur Okonkwo, Kelechi Nwakali, Ben Sheaf, Zech Medley and Julio Pleguezuelo also have professional ambitions and notable talents. With Director of Football Raul Sanllehi’s insistence that the club would focus on efficient squad-building, there are few more cost-effective ways to do so than to progress youngsters from the academy into the first team. 

In conclusion

No, life around Arsenal Football Club isn’t perfect, and one has to look no further than last Thursday’s BATE Borisov debacle to see why. However, no matter how bleak the picture is after an ugly loss, a poor transfer window or news of a rival signing a marquee player to bolster their own ranks, there should always be hope for the future.

This season is still far from over, with the Gunners still in contention for fourth place in the Premier League, and a resounding retaliatory victory against BATE Borisov, this time in the much-friendlier confines of the Emirates Stadium, should see them advance in the Europa League as well. There will be more growing pains to come under Unai Emery, and judgment day for him may yet come earlier than expected, but the club is looking forward with an eye toward improvement, and perhaps some fans would be better served to do the same.

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