The Liverpool Offside: So, last season was weird for a lot of obvious reasons. Considering the circumstances and all that, how has Mikel Arteta settled into his new-ish role as manager at Arsenal? Do the fans back him?
The Short Fuse: Mikel Arteta has settled in incredibly well, probably better than I expected if I’m being honest. The biggest thing he’s done is shore up the defense, which is impressive when you think about who exactly he’s had to work with so far — David Luiz, Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis, and so on. Cards on the table, Arsenal outperformed their xGA under Arteta, so maybe he hasn’t been as successful with the defense as the “goals conceded” boxcar would have you believe. But the Gunners have been so putrid on defense that I’ll take it, even if there is still work to be done. Hopefully the addition of William Saliba (19), who Arsenal bought last summer but loaned back out to St. Etienne as part of the sale, and the likely addition of Gabriel Magalhaes (22) will help keep the Arsenal defense moving in the right direction.
The fans definitely back him. He won a trophy in his first half-season in charge, which put much-needed shine on the worst season for the club in 25 years. Getting into the Europa League with that FA Cup win was huge. Wins over Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool at the end of the season have people convinced that he has the chops to snag a handful of extra points that could prove the difference between another season in the Europa and a return to the Champions League.
TLO: From the outside it looks like Arsenal is caught between two different rosters. Lots of young & promising talent, but also some underperforming veterans on huge wages. What’s the transfer strategy like for the Gunners this window?
TSF: Arsenal are smack dab in the middle of a desperately needed rebuild. The roster wanted turning over before Mikel Arteta joined and probably needs even more work to bring in the kind of players he wants. But the rebuild doesn’t change expectations at the club. This isn’t a “Trust the Process” situation where people accept that the team is going to struggle for a couple seasons but emerge stronger. The expectation is that Arsenal will challenge for a Champions League place every season.
As you correctly point out, the wage structure is a problem. Mesut Ozil’s contract is an albatross, but we always remind our readers that the contract isn’t his fault. The club offered it, and now for whatever reason, the coach/management have decided to keep him away from the pitch. For the record, I think he can still be a contributor at Arsenal, especially now that there have been some front office changes. My suspicion is that Ozil’s refusal to join the majority of the players in taking a paycut back in March didn’t sit well with some of the higher-ups and may have led to his exile from the matchday squads.
While Ozil is the most obvious example of the wages issue at the club, he isn’t the only one. Sead Kolasinac’s wages are way too high for a replacement level left back. Alexandre Lacazette makes nearly 200K per week. Sokratis has a contract, which, yikes. And the list goes on. Hopefully Arsenal will have learned their lesson and as those contracts come off the books, the club won’t replace them with similarly bloated deals. That third year on the Willian deal isn’t a great sign, but it’s apparently what was needed to coax him away from Chelsea.
That’s why you’re seeing a “mixed” transfer strategy and are likely to see something similar going forward. Arsenal have glaring, urgent needs for next season — hence the David Luiz extension (ball-playing, right-footed CB) and the Willian signing (creativity in the midfield). With a move for the aforementioned Gabriel Magalhaes likely to be announced next week, Arsenal are also building for the future. They’ve got a strong core of young players in Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, William Saliba, Emile Smith Rowe, Kieran Tierney, and may bring through a handful of other guys this season. There’s a good foundation to build on. Taking the longer view, to be competitive in the Premier League, Arsenal are going to need to follow the Dortmund/Leipzig model. Buy smart, develop well, and sell at the right time. Part of that is also buying veteran guys to plug roster holes. The Gunners are going to have to outsmart the market and get lucky. They’re not going to be able to overpower it.
TLO: What’re your expectations for Saturday’s Community Shield match? Is it a glorified friendly and an opportunity to gain fitness? Or do you expect the team to take it seriously as an opportunity to win a trophy?
TSF: You’re talking to the 15-time Community Shield Champions here, put some respect on our name. But to be honest, I’m not expecting much from the match.
I think the team will take it seriously because it is a “competitive” fixture. But they’re not going to lose any sleep over a loss. Arsenal have a couple players in quarantine after going on holiday to places that the U.K. government requires a 14-day isolation period on return. They also have some centerback injury issues — Shkodran Mustafi tore his hamstring off the bone and won’t be in training until October, Pablo Mari had surgery to repair ankle ligament damage and won’t be in full training until later this month, and Calum Chambers is still working back from an ACL tear suffered last season. So we may see a William Saliba - Rob Holding - Kieran Tierney back three. It definitely won’t be Mikel Arteta’s opening day lineup, by a longshot.
The reserve set of questions can be found here.