Arsenal spent the most money in the last transfer window in England but what you won’t hear in the headlines is that they spread it on six players, at an average of about 24 million euros each. Last season, it was quite evident that Arsenal lacked depth and it was a big reason why they went out of the Europa League semi finals.
Recruitment is incomplete without a guiding philosophy or approach and Arsenal recruited players according to their capacity to execute Arteta’s specifications in their given roles. Aaron Ramsdale can hit all types of passes that allows Arsenal to bait and beat pressure. Lokonga can reprise Partey’s role as an athletic dynamo in midfield. Tomiyasu can play as an inverted fullback. Tavares can replicate the energy and verve Tierney brings. And Odegaard can be Odegaard. What Arsenal did was to look for players who could execute tactical roles and instructions, even if first choices were absent. It meant that the way we played was the driving force of our recruitment strategy.
Now that the squad has been filled with quality depth, what next? Big name signings? Halaand and Mbappé? European qualification will have a major effect on our financial firepower and our attractiveness as a destination. Outgoings are also significant. Looking at the minutes played, the likes of Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Elneny, Nicolas Pepe are likely to be leaving. Torreira and Guendouzi are likely to be sold, too. These possible outgoings leave us short at right back, right wing, and central midfield. A new striker will also be recruited.
Looking at who we already have in these positions, we need quality depth signings at right-back and at right wing. Players who can execute Arteta’s instructions but do not cost a arm and a leg. Given how good both Takehiro Tomiyasu and Bukayo Saka are at their roles, it is a high standard to meet and probably means we’d need to be comfortable opening the purse wide enough to make sure we recruit the right quality. To make it worth our while, these signings must be young and with a lot of upside, as well.
We have been linked to both Lamptey and Kuluveski at right-back and right-wing. Both are absolutely quality youngsters who could cost around 30 million each to acquire. In my opinion, given how good Arteta’s tactical setup is with the right quality and how easily susceptible it is to a lack of quality and given that we’ll have a jam-packed schedule next season, it is worth spending that much. Kuluveski and Lamptey are the exact same type of transfers we made in this last window: quality youngsters who already have a lot to offer and can go to the next level over the years.
Adding them to the mix means that our right flank will have the same level of quality, depth and potential as our left flank. On the left flank, we have Tierney, Tavares, Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe as immediate options. Tomiyasu, Lamptey, Kuluveski and Saka will rival that. We can play with the safety of the knowledge that injuries or availabilty issues won’t disrupt our rhythm or the effectiveness of our tactical setup. This is what Manchester City do. Ours would just younger and cheaper.
A key question with any right back recruitment is how much overlapping on the outside they are meant to do. Right now, Tomiyasu often underlaps inside to support Saka who stays out wide by himself. But is that all Arteta wants? With the links to Hakimi and Lamptey, I’d argue otherwise and say that he wants more tactical variety: both an underlapping and overlapping option, so he can deal with different opponents in different ways. If this is true, then a target that can both overlap and underlap effectively would be perfect. Personally, for me, I think Valentino Livramento of Southampton best fits this template. Despite being 19, the Cobham product is a very reliable 1-on-1 defender first and foremost, just like Tomiyasu. He is also highly composed in possession, very capable of carrying the ball in and out as well as beating his man. An added advantage is that he is tall for a fullback.
Essentially, Livramento can reproduce Tomiyasu’s defensive qualities while bringing something different going forward. Add the facts that he is both English and very young and will have had a full season of positive Premier League experience, he is a perfect profile for us. It would also feel pretty good to take a top Chelsea fullback from their grasp (they have a buyback clause inserted into his contract with Southampton that only comes active after two seasons, according to the rumours) as some sort of get-back for Ashley Cole. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold.
That’s about 60-70 million spent on reinforcing the depth and quality of our right flank alone. Now here comes the real deal: central midfield and central forward.A key question with our midfield recruitment is whether we are going to use a 4-3-3 or persist with the 4-2-3-1 next season. Both systems have been used this season and if we go by the words of Arteta in the past as well as 4-3-3 experiments this season against Burnley, Leeds and Sunderland, we can reasonably conclude that a move to a 4-3-3 is likely on the cards next season. This means new roles for every midfielder we have. We’d need a proper holding midfielder and maybe an 8 if we sell Xhaka who doesn’t really fit at either 8 or the base of the midfield. This will also have consequences on Emile Smith-Rowe as he’ll likely play as an RCM in this system.
If we are sticking to the old and tried 4-2-3-1 then it’s highly unlikely we sell Xhaka and only a qualitative tactical signing like Lokonga will be needed for depth purposes. I am convinced this will not be the case and that we are moving to a 4-3-3.
If so, then we’d need two signings of top, top quality. We’d need a holding midfielder and LCM. There are not too many holding midfielders around and those that are available and are of the right quality are likely to be major names in the summer that will require financial firepower and Champions League football to attract. Two of those names are Declan Rice and Aurelin Tchouameni. Either would likely cost northwards of 50 million to sign. Big names indeed.
Last window, Arsenal chased Manuel Locatelli very early on without even having any sales, yet. This shows the extent to which he was regarded among our recruitment and coaching department. And it is easy to see why: Locatelli is a left-footed 23-year-old midfielder who can play in a double pivot system (4-2-3-1 as we do) or as an LCM in a 3-man midfield. He brings all of the qualities that Xhaka brings with his leadership, ball progression and buildup abilities, intelligent positioning and composure, as well as the fact that he’s 6ft and can excel physically. He can also play ahead of the ball and in between the lines as well as attack the box. He was going to be a major coup for us. He represented a bridge between our present and the future. He would have been a revelation under Arteta. He was perfect in every possible way. Unfortunately, Italians want to stay in Italy and play for Juventus if they can.
Manuel Locatelli would have played in a double pivot with Thomas Partey this season in Granit Xhaka’s place. Next season, he’d have been the LCM in a 3-man midfield. It would have meant that we signed only a holding midfielder in the upcoming window. Unfortunately, that is now out of the options or is it?
If at the end of the season we secure Champions League football and assurances about Locatelli’s willingness to move, I’d want Arsenal to go in again, like a fool in love. Juventus are in a kind of financial pickle and since the deal that they have with Sassuolo means they don’t need to pay them for another season for Locatelli, a big wad of cash they could spend right now would be quite tempting. Their deal with Locatelli is a bit like a loan-financed asset acquisition which they don’t have to service for an extra year or so. Since they have issues with money right now, offering to take Locatelli off them for immediate cash plus profit should be tantalising from an economic perspective. To us, Locatelli is worth that. He facilitates our move to a 4-3-3 as well as gives us the luxury of returning to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 if we want or have to. The 23 year-old is an option worth exploring again for Arsenal.
If Locatelli is deemed as unrealistic, then we’d need to look at another 8 who can offer us what Xhaka brings while having extras on top. Bruno Guimaraes would be a very qualitative option. His abilities on the ball, work without it and general quality would be a great asset for us. He’d also add to our growing Brazilian contingent.
We have been linked to Alexander Isak, Ollie Watkins, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Tammy Abraham, Dusan Vlahovic, Lautaro Martinez all in the past. It is pretty clear that Arsenal need a new forward to lead the attack. It is also pretty clear that it will be a big money signing. Given the nature of our previous big-money signings, we can’t be too careful in this area. A big money signing is a lot of investment in football terms. If they fail, it is a heavy drag on the club. But if they succeed and meet expectations, they can make a major impact.
Given how young the rest of our forwards are, someone with strong leadership qualities will be a positive. But that’s not a necessarily deciding factor.
We’ve all seen the difference in our team when Lacazette or Aubameyang plays. Ordinarily, Aubameyang scores more goals than Lacazette but Lacazette makes us play better as a team and improves the synergy of our attacking front. With Martinelli, Smith-Rowe, Odegaard and Saka all improving their end product this season, we do not need an out-and-out goalscorer more than someone who glues our attack together. Manchester City and Liverpool have shown for years that you do not need a high-scoring striker to be lethal as a team. A striker can be an extra playmaker for the team.
So, to start off, our new striker must be technically sound and proficient, especially in tight spaces. They must be comfortable dropping deep and drifting to the sides to help build play. They must be good at finding others and linking up with them: smart touches, movement and use of the ball. Our new striker must also be able to give us an option in the box if the game so requires it.
Aerial prowess will also be a necessity: an extra tool to help us play out of a very high press as well as get on the end of Saka and Tierney’s deliveries into the box. It would also be a big positive if our striker is able to physically dominate opponents or at least stand his ground under physical pressure.
It all sounds like a description of Didier Drogba, doesn’t it?
For me, the only strikers who fully check all these boxes are Tammy Abraham and Ivan Toney. Both are physical specimens as we have seen in their games against us and both are quite adept at bringing others into play. There’s a perception of Tammy Abraham not being technically clean but that doesn’t check out with the eye test or with data. He is currently excelling as one of the most creative strikers in Italy. For Ivan Toney, his physical and aerial dominance are not in question, neither is his ability to bring others into play. For this alone, he deserves heavy consideration. But there is a contention that he just doesn’t score goals. It is a wrong one, as he is a strong finisher. Brentford this season have been utilizing him as a creative foil for their attacking play and he is not getting shots (if he gets any) near areas, but as we’ve seen in his games against us and against Liverpool, he is a one-man force that makes his team play better even if he doesn’t get on the scoresheet himself.
Both are also English, homegrown and proven in the Premier League as a force to reckon with. There will be no issues of adaptation and, to make the package for either even more attractive, both would be relatively cheap compared to the other names on the list. Both are also very physically fit and durable—perfect from every perspective.
Tammy Abraham has only recently gone to AS Roma so a return home might not be immediately feasible but Ivan Toney is within reach, possibly even in January. Both fit the culture and the attitude Mikel Arteta is trying to establish. They have both had to climb up the ladder to arrive at the top level just like Benjamin White, Martin Odegaard, Aaron Ramsdale and Takehiro Tomiyasu did. Their commitment and attitude is not in question.
An Ivan Toney signing might disappoint Arsenal fans as they might be expecting a big name to get excited about but as our recent transfer business have shown, it is not about the size of the dog, it is about the size of the fight in the dog. Tactical fitness and quality need not be expensive or an household name. Ivan Toney represents that. I am of the opinion that if we do get Toney, we’d be getting something close to Harry Kane’s heir and our attacking play will only grow so much more potent.
That is it, a sensible look at how our window may turn out to be. If you look at the names recommended—Valentino Livramento, Dejan Kuluveski, Bruno Guimaraes, Aurelin Tchouameni, Ivan Toney—there isn’t much to get overly excited about on the surface. But I’d say that Arteta’s tactical ideas are enough to be excited about and any player that can execute those ideas is exciting by extension. Cancelo, Silva, Gundogan and Sane were not the biggest names in the windows in which they moved but they have been the core of an unstoppable City machine. These signings would likewise make us robust, resistant to availability issues and will have plenty room to grow as players and individuals together.
In any case, it is not about the names but the ideas behind those names: their ability to fit into a profile that Arsenal want. Quality, young, hungry and with much to prove. People who will fit into the culture we are building and will grow with it. Young experienced stars who can become superstars under Arteta’s nurturing.
How does this window look in terms of financial outlay?
(Please note I’m only including transfer fees – not salaries or other packages. Figures are from Transfermarkt and I’ll be adding at least 25% of the fees on them just to cover bases).
Valentino Livramento—30 million.
Bruno Guimaraes—40 million.
Dejan Kuluveski—35 million.
Ivan Toney—40 million.
Aurelin Tchouameni—50 million.
This represents a significant financial outlay. Just a holding midfielder and striker alone should set us back a cool 100 million. But it’s a testament to how far this squad has come and to our ambitions that it takes so much to raise the ceiling of the squad in just two essential positions. Champions League qualification will make such an outlay more feasible. Outgoings are also going to be important. Already, we are guaranteed about 25 million from the sales of Lucas Torreira, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Matteo Guendouzi. Nicolas Pepe is also likely to be sold, as well as at least two of Holding, Mari, Cedric, and Chambers. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is also available for sale. Granit Xhaka if we indeed get two midfielders. There are many other possibilities I cannot reasonably cover but these are the most likely outgoings in case we indeed bring in 5 players at RB, DM, CM, ST and RW.
If we take the TransferMarkt values of these players into account (no artificial inflation on it, considering it’s still a buyer’s market with COVID-19), then we can have a scenario like this.
Nicolas Pepe—30 million
Rob Holding—12 million
Granit Xhaka—20 million
Ainsley Maitland-Niles—12 million
It is unlikely that we’ll get buyers for all of them, so I’m removing Cedric’s fee from that. Earning over 70 million from 4 players may not sound feasible but it’s all about adding up the pennies. Even if we somehow shave off 20 million from that, it is still a largely positive return for Arsenal.
70 takes a big chunk out of 195. Reduces it to the last transfer window spend we had. Add potential Champions League qualification money and it’s looking way less unrealistic. If the expectations of Arteta being supported by the owners are also met, then it is not an impossible window at all.
There are some miscellaneous questions that need answering in this window. Who’ll be the second striker? What about the second goalkeeper? Is Aubameyang moving on this summer or will he stay around to see off his contract? How many of our central defenders are going to leave? Is there any plan to integrate Ballard into the first team next season?
All of these questions will be the nitty-gritty details that Edu has to pay attention to. If he and the recruitment staff play their cards right, we can earn a bit more from outgoings than I’ve sketched out. We could even earn enough (if someone like Aubameyang is moved on) to get in a left winger to rotate with Martinelli. If there’s a plan for that, Kamaldeen Sulemana of Rennes and Noa Lang of Club Brugge would be my recommendations. The former would be a particularly astute pickup: extremely pacey, a very strong dribbler and an ability to upend defences all by himself, the 19-year-old would provide immediate strong competition for Martinelli and will likely grow to be a major name in football himself.
Our summer is all about reinforcing the squad, both in depth and quality, as well as getting most of the deadwood out. Saka and Tomiyasu would need quality rotation. We need a proper holding midfielder and another midfielder, especially if Xhaka is sold in our transition to a 4-3-3. A striker is also top of the list. That’s 4-5 signings at a minimum. Quality will be necessary so that Arteta will have a robust squad to work with and that quality won’t come cheap. We must necessarily be high up the spenders list again in the summer. Hopefully, good business with outgoings and European qualification will strengthen our hand. We will essentially need a repeat of the last window, only more expensive, and we’d have a complete squad that can grow together and withstand shocks and stress.
I hope our board realizes that now is not the time to rest easy but to strengthen our position.
AI is an analyst and writer. He aims to unite StatsBomb data with Don DeLillo. He loves The Arsenal and is working on his first novel.