Why Arsenal’s contract renewals make a lot of sense
On the 24th June, Arsenal announced that they had renewed the contracts of three players. Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari saw their deals extended by four years, whilst David Luiz was given a one-year extension. Mari and Cedric have played just three games between them since joining in January, whilst Luiz turns 34 next year. These were seemingly short-sighted, sideways moves, and were described as such on social media. In actuality, they are nowhere near as bad as they have been portrayed, and make a lot of financial and pragmatic sense.
Note: This article assumes that Arsenal have been hit hard economically by the global pandemic, as would appear to be the case with most clubs.
Perhaps the oddest decision of the three, giving 33-year-old defender David Luiz a new one-year contract, just one week after he self-destructed against Manchester City at the Etihad, making a mistake for the first goal before conceding a penalty and being sent off in the second half, effectively consigning Arsenal to defeat. Not a glowing indictment of his ability. This, combined with question marks about his concentration levels that have plagued his career meant that the majority of fans were left bemused by the move.
However, the Brazilian defender was a key part of Mikel Arteta’s system before the enforced break in the season, starting in 10 of the 12 league games under the Spaniard before the Etihad ordeal. Ahead of the Manchester City performance, he and Mustafi would be the two defenders Arsenal fans named as their best. Additionally, while his ability on the pitch may be regressing, his influence of it remains strong, with Gabriel Martinelli and Pablo Mari both pinpointing him as a key figure in their Arsenal careers.
For an Arsenal squad that has chronically lacked leaders for years and also contains a raft of raw youngsters which contributes to making it the youngest squad in the league, the leadership and experience that Luiz provides is essential. The future of star player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remains in doubt, and if he were to leave, the Gunners would be left with just Granit Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette who could be classed as ‘experienced’. Bukayo Saka, Matteo Guendouzi, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Gabriel Martinelli, Kieran Tierney and Lucas Torreira are all 24 years-old or younger, and whilst all are exciting prospects, none are the finished article or experienced enough to command this Arsenal side. To retain Luiz, therefore, rather than paying a transfer fee to sign another experienced defender on similar wages, says more about his off the pitch mentality than his on the pitch offerings.
When Pablo Mari initially joined the club, it rapidly became clear that Arteta was a big fan of the Brazilian, perhaps solely on the basis that he was left-footed and comfortable playing as a left-sided centre-back. It was as much his departure in itself, as well as Luiz replacing him, that hurt Arsenal so badly against Manchester City. Mari’s ability to play the ball left instinctively, rather than his first touch always being to his right (back infield), meant that Arsenal were more effective at building up play and beating the Manchester City press.
It is fair to say that the centre-back has not stood out for his defensive ability in his paltry three starts, but neither has he looked out of place, offering Arteta a solution to his defensive woes. At 26 (though he will be 27 by the time he recovers from injury), he is beginning to enter the peak of his career, and can certainly provide affordable back-up when necessary. In a market of increasing uncertainty, and with Arsenal targeting a centre-back in the summer window anyway in addition to the arrival of William Saliba, it is likely that Mari will only ever appear as a back-up or rotation option. He offers greater longevity than the ageing Sokratis, and has fewer instances of stupidity than Shkodran Mustafi, although it must be said that neither of these are particularly difficult. In the larger picture of a complete rebuild, however, he offers sensibly priced back-up that could step in where necessary.
By far the most difficult contract to justify for many, Cedric was signed as right-back cover in January, whilst carrying an injury. Since then, a pandemic and further injury have meant that he has not played a minute for the club. With his old deal at Southampton due to expire at the end of this season, it is unclear why Arsenal did not simply wait until he was a free agent to sign him. Why they have renewed his contract, however, is clear.
Hector Bellerin’s path to full fitness has been hindered by both further injury and lack of game time. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has performed admirably in his stead, but has time and time made abundantly clear that he wanted to play in a different position, be it on the wing or in central midfield. If he is not of the required standard, his youth and the fact that he is English will inflate his price tag, making him a potentially valuable asset for Arsenal. If he succeeds, he offers an in-house solution to some of Arsenal’s midfield issues. Keeping him as a back-up right back would be a waste of valuable resources either way.
To Cedric then, and as a free transfer who was experienced, he ticked a lot of boxes for Arteta, even if he is yet to appear in the famous red and white of Arsenal. The other options available for free were Thomas Meunier and Jermey Ngakia, both polar opposites in terms of experience and wage demands, which rules out the Belgian and surely deems the young Frenchman unsuitable for Arteta’s vision.
The length of the contract also raised a lot of eyebrows among Arsenal fans but seems reasonable. It means that questions over his future will not be asked after one (potentially good) season, while if it goes badly his contract ensures that he has at least some resale value, especially given his wages are rumoured to be well below £100k per week, meaning that Arsenal will not have Mkhitaryan and Ozil-esque issues with the Portuguese international.
The Bottom Line
It is easy to say that time will tell regarding the contracts handed out to these three players, but covering these positions cheaply will potentially allow money to be spent in more pressing positions, such as midfield and left-wing, in the forthcoming window. Mari and Cedric both bridge the gap between too much youth and the rapidly declining players that Arsenal have at present, ensuring that there will be experience in the dressing room, if not on the pitch. These may not be the star signings that Arsenal fans want and expect, but they quietly strengthen the side going forward and can offer mentoring to the fantastic crux of young players at the club.