Arsené Wenger and Arsenal played some of the most beautiful football the Premier League has witnessed in the late 90’s and the early 2000’s. Wenger came to England in 1996 and it is well documented that he came with different ideas; ideas that were alien to English football at the time. This included his transfer policy and youth development/recruitment. Wenger had an enormous part to play in the careers of so many players such as Jack Wilshere, Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry, to name a few.
In his latter years and once he had moved on, the ‘Arsenal way’, which had become so famous worldwide, seemed to not be so prominent. Arsenal have been in desperate need of a ‘rebuild’ for quite some time now and Mikel Arteta has been trusted with that job. He is expected to rebuild the squad using the clubs' youth system, in addition to sourcing players from elsewhere. But how promising is the future for Arsenal? Will they be challenging for the top honours in the near future?
Starting with the goalkeeper position, there were a lot of mixed feelings when Aaron Ramsdale signed for Arsenal and rightly so - he had somewhat become a relegation expert, not by choice of course, but solely based on the clubs he’d most recently been playing for. However, once Ramsdale got his chance ahead of Bernd Leno, he and Arsenal have not looked back. He is without doubt the clear Arsenal number one, and dare I say it, possibly even the England number one soon?
His distribution, which was obviously one of the many reasons Arteta paid the money he did for the English shot-stopper, is exquisite. He is the definition of a modern day sweeper keeper and he can pick out the most ridiculous pass to pretty much anyone on the pitch. His shot-stopping is pretty amazing too. He gets across the goal as fast as any outfield player moves around the pitch, his quickness to make saves and close angles down in one-on-one situations is outstanding.
A signing which underwhelmed at first, but has taken no time in showing Arsenal fans he is the goalkeeper they’ve been looking for.
The Arsenal back four/five was lauded as one of the best in the early Wenger days, but players age, and the likes of Adams, Keown, Dixon and Campbell were not going to be around for ever. The club have failed to match that kind of defensive sturdiness and reliability they once had.
After kissing a few frogs, Arsenal now have a defence they can be proud of.
Starting with the full backs, both Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu have the capabilities to go forward as well as backwards, which sounds crazy, but full backs these days tend to only be full back by name. They’re basically wingers now, such is their contribution to the attacking side of the game. Tierney, who still squeezes into the Scotland squad despite having arguably the best left back in the world ahead of him, has shown in his short Arsenal career that he has great leadership skills, which is something Arsenal have been desperately searching for. Tomiyasu came in a little under the radar but has quickly become a fan favourite for his fairly simple approach to the full back position, yet highly effective output. He has been a great addition to the squad.
On to the centre backs and focusing on the starting line up, assuming Gabriel and Ben White are the starting pair. Gabriel is an aggressive defender who defends on the front foot and, despite still having a long way to go, he is definitely something Arsenal have been missing for a long time. Arteta had made it a priority to bring in a left sided centre back, which gives the centre back pairing some balance, especially if you’re looking to play out from the back, which is a key trait of Arteta and his team. White was another signing that didn’t particularly have AFC supporters jumping up and down, but he has shown in his short Gunners career that he loves to defend. White is arguably more pleasing on the eye with the ball at his feet, but does still have that aggressive side to him too, which is, of course, important for a central defender. On the whole the centre back pairing has a nice balance to it and they are already forming a strong partnership at the heart of the defence.
Probably the first time in a while that Arsenal fans can look at their back line and be happy with it. It’s far from perfect, but it’s certainly better than previous years and they’re all relatively young, so it has the chance to develop with the right guidance and good coaching, from Arteta and his backroom team.
Arsenal have been blessed with some fantastic midfielders over the years, but how do the current crop stack up?
Albert Sambi Lokonga has been okay since he joined, he's a good passer of the ball and has a great engine, but is he the next Patrick Vieira or Cesc Fabregas? The short answer is no but he may well surprise us. As things stand, he looks fairly average and doesn’t look like the top class central midfielder Arsenal are crying out for.
Now, believe it or not, Martin Ødegaard is not 35 years old. It seems like he’s been around forever after breaking onto the scene at such a young age. It never really happened for Ødegaard at Real Madrid, but it’s clear to see why Arsenal brought him back on a permanent deal, following his short loan stint. His eye for a pass in the final third and his ability to play passes that other players wouldn’t even think of make him an exciting prospect for the future. He is technically very good, and whilst Arsenal have had players like this in recent years, it’s what’s around them that makes the difference. It’ll be interesting to see if the team is built around the Norwegian.
Last but not least the Hale End boys, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. Every football fan loves their academy graduates, the cliché chant ‘he’s one of our own’ is sung around grounds all over the Premier League, but something feels different about these two. It’s been a while since Arsenal fans have been this excited about academy graduates.
Saka reminds me of Arjen Robben; now I’m certainly not saying that he is as good as Robben because they are some serious boots to fill, but what I am saying is that out on the right wing you know he wants to come inside on to that incredible left foot of his. Like Robben, it is incredibly difficult to defend against. He has so much pace it’s frightening and he isn’t afraid to go on the outside like a conventional winger either. The way he forced his way into the England team for Euro 2020 just shows us how much desire the boy has, not to mention the fact he stepped up to take that penalty in the final at such a young age.
ESR (as the cool kids call him), Emile Smith Rowe (for those born before the millennium), is another incredibly talented player but very different in comparison to Saka. Smith Rowe is a very unpredictable player, he has the ability to go both ways and is more than capable of beating players with his ability to move with the ball, or by playing the perfect pass. He has also shown that he can play anywhere in the midfield, whether it be through the middle, wide or deeper. He is a clever player who has the ‘often talked about’ low centre of gravity, making him an extremely elusive player.
Arsenal have a few top class stars on their hands here, and if they continue to develop and are given the right guidance they could certainly lead Arsenal back to where they want to be. With one or two added in around them, the midfield would have a great balance, it’s just down to Arsenal to keep hold of these talents and make the right moves to build around them.
The two forwards I’m going to focus on are Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli, two very different forwards, but both have their strengths. Starting with Nketiah; one thing you can say about him is that he doesn’t lack desire or hunger, he always works hard for the team and is never one to throw the towel in, metaphorically speaking. If I were to use a footballing term to describe Nketiah, I would go with ‘fox in the box’ - an ode to former Arsenal number nine, Francis Jeffers. Nketiah can finish without a doubt; he most definitely has the ability and the knowledge to be in the right place at the right time. But does he have what it takes to be the number nine for a club who want to challenge for the top four, and compete in the Champions League? The answer to this is probably no. If you compare Nketiah to other top strikers, young or old, he isn’t quite at that level. No disrespect to him, as I’m certain he will still play for a top club, but I can’t see him being the answer to Arsenal's problems.
Gabriel Martinelli is a completely different style of player to Nketiah. He is full of pace and flair, and has shown his ability at ghosting in off the left wing. He’s no Ronaldinho, but he can make any defender look silly with a stepover or feint, and with his frightening pace he’s a scary prospect for anyone to face. He is fairly direct with the ball at his feet, which is maybe what Arsenal need, but he does have an element of flair and his finishing is of the highest level too. He has that ‘inside of the foot’ finish which Arsenal fans have seen before dare I say. I am certainly not comparing him to Henry, but there are similarities in the way in which he plays, that’s for sure. Ideally, he'll become an asset through the middle too in addition to the left wing and, personally, I think he can be.
This is most definitely an area which Arsenal need to address; Aubameyang has recently moved on, and it looks as though Lacazette will too. Nketiah is a good player, but it is unlikely he will be good enough for Arsenal long-term. Martinelli looks a fantastic prospect, but can he score 20/30+ a season? Is he a proper striker or a number 9, as we call it? Only time will tell. An out and out striker should still be a priority for Arsenal, but in addition to Martinelli, not instead of.
So to conclude, Arsenal could do better in defence, there is room for improvement in midfield and more effort needs to be placed in recruitment for the forward areas. As an Arsenal fan, I am enjoying watching the team more than I have in recent years, and I like where we are going. In my personal opinion we are a handful (if not a rather large handful) of players away from firstly, competing to get into the top four, but secondly, and more importantly, pushing to challenge for the title, and competing in the Champions League.