There is a new feeling in the air around Arsenal these days. A sense of positivity not seen in some time. No matter what side of the line you fall under – staunch Unai Emery supporter or recent convert – for the first time in a long while we are in the driver’s seat.
Monday evenings comfortable 2-0 win against Newcastle at the Emirates is precisely what the doctor ordered. What’s more, is that results elsewhere now see us in prime position to recapture Champions League football. It may not be a league title or even second-best in the country, but this is something we desperately needed.
Make no mistake about it; Arsenal’s destiny is entirely in its own hands for the remainder of the season. Despite that, it is a road hardly lacking in potential speedbumps.
Five out of our seven remaining league fixtures are away from home; patches of grass that have given us cause for concern this season. The Emirates may be turning into a fortress but we struggle when not on our patch. Emery’s red and white army has managed just a single win in their last six away fixtures, with an overall negative goal difference over the course of the season. With Everton, Watford, Wolves, and Leicester all away, Champions League qualification via the league is hardly a foregone conclusion.
Should Arsenal hold on, dig deep, and return to Europe’s premier club competition, the bigger question to be answered is how we negotiate the market in the summer.
Arsenal’s market sensibility
It is undeniable how beneficial a return to Champions League is for the club. In a sport where financial strength and marketability has become the watermark for any club with aspirations, Arsenal – at current – remain just behind their domestic rivals.
In terms of our global brand and reputation, there are only a handful of clubs with greater pull on the populace. Despite our absence at the very pantheon of club competition, we still maintain big name player assets that continue to attract while keeping us within striking distance. Regardless of these factors, our ability to compete in the transfer market has hit a wall in the grand scheme of it all.
Many have said that judgment levied against Emery should be reserved until after a few transfer windows. To his credit, the Basque headmaster has done well given some of the issues he has been made to contend with. However, he may not find himself in a position where he – nor Raul Sanllehi – can bank on a reservation of judgment much longer. How the club continues its desired upward trajectory this summer can – and may – define his entire Arsenal tenure.
Whether or not the club finishes in the top four – or nets a Europa League trophy – is just one aspect of the debate. How Emery, Sanllehi, and whomever the new technical director is, intend on building the squad is a bigger question.
To say that it is of paramount importance to understand our position in the market is an understatement. Though only links in the tabloids, rumours of interest in the likes of Ryan Fraser may provide breadcrumbs. The hard truth going into the silly season is more big-name arrivals at London Colney may not be so easy to come by.
As football supporters – especially for a club of Arsenal’s stature – there comes with it the feeling of entitlement. I mean no disrespect by making such a claim, but it certainly is a hard truth. Jokes about the real world not being FIFA or Football Manager aside, there are real concerns here.
When tabloid links surfaced about rumoured interest in Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser, many jumped at the chance to be critical. But what if this is where our wheelhouse should be? Granted – as I touched on before – our fanbase will be crying out for, and used to, much bigger names. Unfortunately, other factors must be considered when dissecting our potential summer expenditures.
The financial windfall of CL qualification – and the ramifications if we do not achieve it – undoubtedly play a role moving forward. Our new kit deal with Adidas, and trimming down the wage budget via sales must also be considered. While at this point it remains uncertain just how strong our position in the summer will be, it may not matter either way.
Despite his experience at the very top with Barcelona, Sanllehi is no longer at a club that commands one of the highest hills on the transfer landscape. The directive from on high (KSE) and our desire to remain financially solvent – CL or not – and self-sustaining narrows down our pull as well. The reality that we could not afford a transfer fee plus wages during January pays homage to this very fact.
Our best play, and likely our most effective one is to focus on a sector of the market that we know we can dominate. To go deep sea fishing in a 2-man row boat with an outboard motor while your competitor has a 100-foot trawler does not seem practical.
A wheelhouse fit for Arsenal
Whether we like it or not, despite the financial status of our owner, Arsenal will not be a free-spending club. Personally, I am okay with that, and I think many are also. Understanding where we can excel during transfer windows is where most will come to a disagreement.
There have been calls for players such as Samuel Umtiti, Dayot Upamecano, David Alaba, Nicolas Pepe, Nabil Fekir, and Timo Werner. You would be hardpressed to find fans of any big club who would not welcome players of that level. The unfortunate reality is that a summer which features deals for both Umtiti and Alaba is far beyond remote. One could even argue that bringing in just one of the aforementioned is extremely unlikely.
It is fair to say that Lucas Torreira, despite his recent struggles, has settled nicely at the club and hit the ground running. Without him, it is likely that our unbeaten run never would have materialized in the fashion it had. Many forget that he was a signing that cost no more than ₤30million from a club in Sampdoria who have only placed higher than ninth on one occasion in the last decade.
Our move for the Uruguayan international is a move that made sense on multiple fronts. Arsenal is a much bigger club than Sampdoria. Torreira was one of their standout players and was quite affordable at the time of the deal, showing value for money. Additionally, he was the right fit for what we wanted from a player in his position. This is the area of the market we can – without excuse – dominate.
Torreira-type deal should become our norm
Was our move for Torreira so different for a move for, say, Fraser? How about Matteo Guendouzi? Barely recognized outside of France unless you closely follow domestic events there. Fetched from FC Lorient for relative pennies, and he is now widely regarded as one of our brightest young talents after an impressive debut season. Many often forget we brought in Laurent Koscielny from the same club.
The same can be said for Robin van Persie, who came to us a youngster from Feyenoord Rotterdam. Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby were purchased from AJ Auxerre. Gaël Clichy traded AS Cannes for Highbury.
To invoke something even closer to the heart; Aaron Ramsey said no to Sir Alex Ferguson and left Cardiff City for north London. Arsenal has a history of finding gems in unlikely places for more affordable fees.
Successful track record at our title rivals
Naturally, the argument against continuing this practice is that it may see us continuously fail to catch the likes of City and Liverpool. Ironically, both clubs have similar finds in their ranks. At City, you have none other than club captain Vincent Kompany who hailed from RSC Anderlecht; a massive jump in competition quality in comparison. The same can be said of Oleksandr Zinchenko. A talented youngster he may be, but the gap between the Russian top flight and the Premier League is substantial.
As for Liverpool, they are – unfortunately – probably the best example. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Andrew Robertson are all testaments to targeting value/production for money. Bar Milner, none of the aforementioned players came from big clubs, and every one of them still had it all to prove on a bigger stage.
Robertson is the best example, coming from Hull City for just ₤9million and has in less than two years developed into arguably the best left-back in the country. Firmino (Hoffenheim), Mane (Southampton), and Wijnaldum (Newcastle) all made considerable leaps of their own.
Both City and Liverpool are now well ahead of the Premier League pack. Both clubs feature big names but also players found in unlikely places. This is very much a section of the market that Arsenal can prime themselves to dominate.
Fit not lustre
Something that has been made clear about Emery is that he is a manager who knows what he wants from his players. For him, it is about how they fit into the team, his plan, and what they bring to the table. How big a name looks in lights is very much second-fiddle. For me, this is further proof that our summer business may not be what many are hoping, even with CL money should we acquire it.
There is no telling if links with Ryan Fraser are credible or not, but for me, it’s the type of signing that makes sense for the club. Just 25-years-old, he is not even in his prime yet. His current deal with Bournemouth ends after next season, he is tactically versatile and has a workhorse mentality despite his creative nature. He suits Emery’s system to the ground.
On top of it all, he is level on fourth in Europe’s top five leagues in assists despite playing for a Bournemouth side that regularly struggles for goals. His only crime is that he is not a big name player from a bigger club. He is, however, a prime example of a player who screams value for money, to say nothing of the fact that he ticks the homegrown player box while not having to break the bank to bring in a Premier League-ready asset.
The ends justify the means
If it sounds like I am hoping the links are genuine, it is certainly a move I would not be against. I do, however, think we also need one big signing this summer, particularly in defence. But the acquisition of a player – or players – like Fraser allow us to target improving our depth for value which in turn affords us a big name in. This makes a move for a player like Dayot Upamecano or Jonathan Tah more tangible.
Would it be so inconceivable to witness an Arsenal summer that involved Upamecano, Fraser, and – for argument’s sake – Ryan Sessegnon? It stands to reason to suggest that bringing in players on the cusp of reaching the next phase of their development makes sense. Doing so before they hit said level, and the subsequent spike in a fee they would command, just makes good business sense. It also allows us to have the funds to make that big-name signing if one that fits our needs becomes realistically available while benefitting of them being on our books when they hit the next phase of their progression.
We unfortunately also have to consider the homegrown rules, especially if you consider we are unsure if the likes of Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe, and Eddie Nketiah will be in the first-team next season or out on loan. The same can be said of Calum Chambers.
Regardless of what happens this summer, it is important to remember that who we buy and how they fit into Emery’s scheme is what is important. The size and reach of their name are inconsequential. After all, a once-disgraced former captain of 1860 Munich broke into Borussia Dortmund’s first team a month after his purchase. A former Arsenal academy standout via VfB Stuttgart is now glistening in Bavaria after rejuvenating his career at VfL Wolfsburg.
You never know who you will find and where you’ll find them. What matters is when you find them, you pull the trigger.
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