Arsenal need an urgent transformation. After their spectacular Premier League collapse and their humbling 1-4 defeat to Chelsea in the Europa League final, the Gunners are set to compete in the Europa League for the third season running.
It has been news for quite some time that the manager Unai Emery would only be given a limited budget this transfer window to bring in the players he required. That limit was set at £45 million if Arsenal stayed in the Europa League, and 60 million if Arsenal qualified for the Champions League.
£45 million is a tiny amount of money considering the transfer inflation in the Premier League.
By the end of the season, a number of players in the Arsenal squad needed to leave and a whole new raft of players to sign had been determined. The Arsenal defense badly needed an upgrade, and a wide goal-scoring forward needed to be signed. The departures of Petr Cech, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck also needed to be corrected in the squad.
Players like Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal, Mohamed Elneny, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Carl Jenkinson and Mesut Ozil were identified to be moved on from. However, moving the high earners Ozil and Mkhitaryan was always going to be difficult.
At the start of the pre-season, Arsenal were also shocked by the refusal of the club captain Laurent Koscielny to travel with the squad; for all practical purposes it was an effort by Koscielny to leave the club.
Arsenal's well-documented struggles in the transfer market seem to continue this season too. The only incoming transfers to date havee been Gabriel Martinelli, a 17-year old winger from Brazil., and William Saliba and Dani Ceballos. The pursuit of Wilfried Zaha has been followed heavily by the media but the difference in valuation by Arsenal and Crystal Palace is clear for all to see. Even the Kieran Tierney saga has yet to conclude.
With owner Stan Kroenke choosing not to put any of his own money into the club and instead run a self-sustaining model, transfer funds have been limited at Arsenal for a few windows now.
Another aspect of Arsenal’s transfer strategy this season was clearly stated by their board, with an emphasis on promotion of their talented youth to compete for squad places. To that end, Freddie Ljungberg was promoted from the under-23 coach to a member of Emery’s coaching staff, with Steve Bould taking his place at the youth team. Ljungberg will likely provide valuable inputs to Emery, having worked closely with the Arsenal youth.
Even before the pre-season, the inclination of Arsenal to focus on the youth academy was clear for everyone to see. Emiliano Martinez, returning from a productive loan with Reading, was promoted to back-up keeper for this season. The talented Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe, both back from impressive loan experience in the Bundesliga, were handed new squad numbers.
Joe Willock, fresh from a breakout campaign last season, has also been handed a new squad number. Bukayo Saka is a talented winger, who made his Arsenal first team debut at 17 years and starred at the U-23 level. Saka was also included in the pre-season squad.
Apart from these names, even Robbie Burton, James Olayinka, and Tyreece John-Jules were included to travel with the squad during pre-season.
Pre-season results have provided hope to Arsenal fans that the youth will be able to make up for the lack of transfers this season. New signing Martinelli scored against the Colorado Rapids, with Olayinka netting a screamer and Saka also getting off the mark.
Saka and Martinelli have proved to be revelations this pre-season, providing trickery, pace and energy on the flanks. The returning Nelson has also shone on the wings, although he still has to improve his end product.
In the midfield, Willock has impressed at the base, ensuring that he jumps ahead of Elneny in the squad. He may even get the nod to start against Newcastle in the first game of the Premier League, due to the late arrivals from holiday of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi.
One of the standouts of the pre-season so far has been Eddie Nketiah. Having been stopped from going out on loan last January due to Welbeck's injury, Nketiah has now firmly established himself as the third-choice striker behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Nketiah's return of three goals means he is the top scorer this pre-season for Arsenal. His form will be crucial to enabling the rotation of the star forward duo and providing rest to either Lacazette or Aubameyang.
Although he missed a penalty, Burton can also be proud of his impact in the pre-season. His composed passing and control in the midfield were a great reminder of the raft of youth talent waiting in the wings at Arsenal.
It has already been stated by Emery that the youth will be used during some of the matches in the Carabao Cup and the Europa League. This will provide them with an opportunity to impress the coach, gain experience and even push for a first team place in the near future.
Promoting youth to squad places, if done in the right manner, can easily save money for transfers in other areas of the squad. The blueprint for such a board setup has already been seen at Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. In the past, even Barcelona and Manchester United made extensive use of their youth academies to create title-winning squads.
While it may not be possible to build a title-winning squad with youth alone, Arsenal can at least challenge for the top 4 again this season with their youthful additions.
With such an impressive amount of young options in the forward and midfield line, the major area which needs strengthening is the back-line. Although the centre back options for Arsenal next season seem to be Mustafi, Sokratis, Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Konstantinos Mavropanos, the team still needs to strengthen the centre-back and full back positions.
Monreal is getting older, Sead Kolasinac and Mustafi are error-prone and not very strong defensively, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles is not a natural right back. Spending the majority of the transfer budget and making shrewd signings in defense could well prove to be the major difference in Arsenal competing for the top 4 or missing out on Champions League football again.
With so much doom and gloom surrounding the Arsenal transfer season, fans can at least look at the pre-season results with a bout of optimism; the youth are showing that they are capable of lifting this team to greater heights. The additions from the youth academy have shown that they have what it takes to compete at the highest level, against the strongest teams.
It is now up to Emery and his coaching staff to manage the squad properly and place Arsenal back in the Champions League once again.Published 26 Jul 2019, 01:13 IST