Keep, Sell, Loan; Arsenal’s Squad ASSESSED (Part 1)

Mikel Arteta is an ambitious man — and we need ambition.

In the non-broadcasted part of the press conference for Arsenal’s game against Brighton in April, he said this when asked about Champions League versus Europa League qualification.

“Both competitions require a much larger squad because the number of games you play is much bigger, so I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. If you can afford it — and we don’t have to do the turnaround in the squad that we’ve had to do — if you ask me what I want, it’s 22 outfield players and three goalkeepers.” – Mikel Arteta, 8th April 2022

At roughly two players per outfield position, and considering I make it only 12 players who are absolutely certain to stay on at the club from last season’s squad, that is a significant amount of work to do. However, when you’re spring cleaning your house you have to be ruthless with your sentimental items to make the space you need for quality — and this summer we have to be just that to raise the technical floor of this team and match Arteta’s ambition.

Let’s get to it.

This will be in two parts, and I’ll release the midfielders and forwards part next week. I won’t do loan players or we’ll be here til Christmas. I appreciate categorising players like this is a little reductive and slapstick, but I actually think it can help to clarify a great deal. My assessment will include things I like about the player, things I think could be focused on from a technical/coaching perspective and a more holistic perspective on the player. Finally, I will put them in a category: 

Keep, sell or loan.

Aaron Ramsdale

On a podcast in April last year I said this: “Only Arsenal could make Aaron Ramsdale look like Ederson in that first half. God sake…”

This is why those behind the scenes at the club are the professionals and I’m sat here writing this.

It was exactly the qualities I mocked that Arteta & the recruitment team noticed and thought could add a new dynamic to our team. They also noticed how Ramsdale responded brilliantly to mistakes on their video analysis, and background checks talked of a great teammate — an ongoing theme of the recruitment policy. You can see this maturity & growth mindset in every interviews; his personality & positivity is infectious.

Ramsdale’s form had a worrying dip at the end of last season, and his post-shot xG performance went down to relegation level. I’d like to see him bypass the first phase a bit more (like he did earlier in the season), specifically into the midfield to Ødegaard who has the technical level to receive those driven balls. I think teams slightly worked out what he was doing and as his form dipped, he had to go back to basics.

Overall though, a really solid debut season, much better than I expected, and he came third in our Player of the Season vote — he has cult hero potential.

It’s a definite keep.

Bernd Leno 

In a way, I feel sorry for Bernd Leno. 

He probably grew up just that little bit too late to place so much focus on his technical footwork and distribution in his youth, and the game is unfortunately trending away from him. In my opinion he is a top 5/10 goalkeeper in world football in terms of pure shot-stopping — the save from Lukaku in the Chelsea game at The Emirates is breathtaking. He’s been excellent for us at times and Unai Emery’s life expectancy at Arsenal was prolonged significantly by Bernd.

He won’t want to stay, and with Matt Turner coming in, he’ll surely want to move on and I suspect he’ll go abroad unless the Fulham talks go anywhere.

Sell. If he does stay, is he the best third choice goalkeeper… ever?

Arthur Okonkwo

The word is that Okonkwo might be off on loan. I can’t assess a player I’ve never seen play a minute of professional football and I suspect Karl Hein, who has already played minutes for Estonia at international level, will make the step up.

This guy is massive in terms of height at 6’5″ – imposing, but it’s not always an advantage in terms of agility. Ramsdale has probably slightly skewed our view of what level a goalkeeper should be at a certain age, and considering goalkeeping years are like the opposite of dog years, we’ll just have to wait and see how he develops, as highly rated as I know he is at the club.

Hopefully he can go to a club in the football league; Kevin Betsy’s appointment at Crawley Town may be an opportunity.

Loan.

Cédric Soares

If you’ve read any of my articles before, you know my distaste for Cedric. I don’t dislike him on a personal level and I’m open to change my mind, I just think he’s a mid-table Premier League player and we need to move on.

Sometimes a player just makes you feel something. When you saw Cedric on the team sheet for the North London derby next to Rob Holding, don’t tell me you felt anything other than blind panic.

I was in the stadium for the Wimbledon game in the League Cup this season, sat right in the corner and got a great look at him. He’s short and not majorly stocky and his technical level drags us down — he must have mis-controlled half a dozen balls in the first half. If Arteta wants his full back to be his right sided CB at times, someone who can tuck into midfield, you can do better than Cedric and Saliba & White are better than him. If you want a different option who can get forward, you can do better than Cedric too.

If he stays, I want to see a significant improvement in his defensive positioning — he is so often panicked and dragged out by a high quality left winger then quickly 1-2’d around. He’s not blessed with many fast twitch muscle fibres to spring in different directions so he loves a straight line, and he doesn’t have the quality to make up for lack of athleticism. 

He also needs to stop swinging in crosses from the half spaces, though his set piece delivery can be good. Trent’s not exactly worried.

In fairness he is actually very good in tight spaces and can combine well with Ødegaard on the sunny days at The Emirates.

Sell, for me. I think he’ll stay though – apparently the coaching staff like him. Sigh.

Takehiro Tomiyasu

If you want extended analysis on Tomiyasu go and watch this video if you like. The bloke is probably the best defender at the club and massively underrated for his attacking contribution too.

He gives you so many options. Right back, left back, centre back, inverted CM, wide full back — I’m convinced he’d be a good 6 too. Trust me, within a season or so, he’ll be viewed in the Walker & Robertson class, just below the Trent, Cancelo and Van Dijk category — we really have a gem on our hands. I don’t have many technical thoughts – possibly I’d like to see him show a bit more explosiveness, but that’s like asking a Rolls Royce what its 0-60 is.

The one big thing is his injury record. Get him in the gym over the summer strengthening around those calves, and hopefully with Saliba coming in and possibly another full back signing or Brooke Norton-Cuffy being given a chance (though I do think we all need to calm down about BNC), we might be able to manage his load a little better. The only moment I saw him get spun this season was against Liverpool when he looked about 60% fit, where Jota managed to get past him. 

It’s only notable because it so seldom happens.

I actually think the club need to push him slightly in the media to cement his profile and get that narrative going that he’s tough to face — he seems too humble himself. I’d call on Arteta to trust him more when we can get quality around him. Let him shuffle around in-game, find ways to use him at left back and more. If only we’d moved him to CB sooner in the NLD…

By the way, if I hear one more person call him “ambidextrous” I am going to explode. Ambidextrous is your hands, ambipedal is your feet.

Duh. (He says having made that exact mistake many times).

Keep at all costs.

Rob Holding

Again, full thoughts in this video, but I really like Holding’s squad role. There’s not many players with his quality and experience who are perfect to slot in the middle of a 5 and see out a game clearing balls or winning duels & crucially are professional enough to accept it and not become a problem in the dressing room. We gained a lot of points thanks to Holding this season — Villa away was such a highlight. Still think we need a “Holding in a back Five” chant to the tune of Dancing in the Moonlight, by the way.

We’re never going to get a dominant, imperious & unflappable CB out of Rob, but I do think there’s a higher ceiling there for him. In fairness, he is a lot more well rounded than people think, I think he has a slightly Brexit reputation these days which I have a long rant about, but that’s more about the way he’s being used.

I’d like to see him reading the game better as he matures and become more aware of his limitations, trusting himself and positioning himself accordingly. He’s not as limited, but some Per Mertesacker YouTube compilations might be worth a watch. I’d like to see him scanning and watching his line more & being careful of closing space too soon – space is your friend when you don’t have the capacity to match forwards physically. Video analysis sessions will help and I’m sure age will help.

Just another thing, if possible, Rob — invent time travel, go back to the NLD and stop getting so touch-tight to Son. Cheers.

Keep, unless a crazy offer comes in.

Gabriel Magalhæs

Gabriel is an interesting one for me. I actually think Gabriel goes under the radar a lot, which in a sense as a defender might be a good thing. For someone in his profile, time is his friend and I can see him ageing very well. He’s always available and has cemented that LCB role, neither of which should go without merit.

I’d like to see him continue to dominate on set pieces at both ends and cement that reputation, though I think that’s coming, and he is often the one to clear balls defensively. I have a suspicion he could become a bit Koscielny-esque, able to get to those scrappy second balls in the box to nick a few goals. In fairness, he finished the season with the most goals for a Centre Back in the league.

When he played for Lille I saw a lot more cross field balls and a lot more penetration through the lines. He may just not be instructed to do that, but he is actually really good at threaded and lofted passes, so I’d like to see some development there. Some consistency on our left hand side in terms of personnel, as well as an increase in quality may really help.

He does need to stop doing that thing where he just blocks someone off in midfield to stop the counter — he did it at Southampton last season and it cost us at City this season. Don’t give refs any reason to send you off.

Overall, a really solid season.

Keep.

Benjamin White

I like White. Good player. However…

I do really, really hear the arguments that keeping Saliba & spending £50m on a centre forward might have done the trick this season. Maybe the club felt White was going to end up somewhere else, and perhaps long term we have the guy so it was worth it, but say he moves on in 1-2 years then I don’t think that’s the best business we could have done.

And if he goes on Love Island it really was stupid.

I want to see more aggression & tenacity and I miss his trademark runs forward at times, but the guy is a great footballer. Quick, great tackling technique, high level of concentration, and of course really special on the ball; he’s everything you want from a modern CB. Add in some competition and more to aim at up front and I think we’ll see who he really is next season after a really promising debut campaign.

One specific thing: I wonder if he can see pictures a bit sooner which could see him being more decisive in the first phase. I’d like to see him spot 2v1s in the middle sooner, spot isolation out wide sooner or other things dependent on game state — might be that lack of consistency and quality around him doesn’t help at times, and it’s very easy when we have the whole picture on the screen; but just a thought.

Keep, no question.

Kieran Tierney

Kill your darlings. Again, a whole video on KT here — I just think it’s time to move on, much as I love him.

There’s two reasons I say that: one is injuries, and the other is flexibility.

You can be the most talented footballer on the planet, but if you aren’t available to be on the pitch then it’s a moot point. He’s missed something like a season and a bit of football for us in 3 seasons, and it’s normally towards the end of the season which put us in tight spots at the business end. It gets boring, but look at the Liverpool team – that core group (including Robertson) are pretty much always available, so they win matches. It’s really sad, and I have a lot of empathy for him on a personal level and hope he can stay fit for his sake — but we’re not a charity. We can’t afford another season without a top LB.

Even if he did stay fit, I think he limits us. He’s a straight lines player, similar to Bellerin. Great defender, but lacks the explosiveness from a standing start you need in those areas, as quick as he is. Arteta loves two footed full backs because they can give you options – they can come inside, become your 3rd CB, go beyond, go into MF — you can chop and change. Tierney can give you some of that, but he’s heavily one footed and every single full back Arteta has signed or we have been significantly linked with are adept with both feet to some degree, or able to provide more tactical flexibility than Tierney.

I know fans love Tierney, but I think it’s a bit rose tinted. Ask someone why they want to keep Tierney, and if they don’t say the phrases “passion for the club”, “fights for the badge” or “plays like a fan” then I’m willing to listen and please send them my way. I love passion too, but passion doesn’t stop you limiting a team.

Tierney is by no means a bad football player. Stays fit, in the right system, could be top, has some great qualities. I just don’t think he will stay fit, and I don’t think it’s here if he does come good. 

Performances this season were fine, and if he does stay I’d just want him to stay fit and come inside a bit more to vary his game – a tall forward may help.

Sell. Sorry.

Nuno Tavares

The wildcard, the final of the group. The Emmanuel Eboue regen.

I love Tavares, I think he’s absolutely hilarious. He plays like he’s in a YouTube compilation. Within a 5 minute spell he can give away a penalty, lash one over from 30 yards, execute a perfect tackle, progress you 50 yards up the pitch, nick a goal and get himself hooked. It’s bedlam.

I imagine the likes of Klopp, Guardiola and more talk about him a lot with Arteta. What a project he could be, the best way to approach it. He is such an interesting player.

He needs to calm down and focus on the fundamentals. Where’s my line, how can I respond to the movements of the players around me, receive it, give it, don’t panic. Arteta is actually a great coach for him in a way. Watch Ødegaard play; it’s all automations and pressing triggers and instructions executed with technical brilliance. Tavares could be optimised to deliver specific actions too. When my left winger cuts inside I know what my body shape should be. He’s physically absolutely incredible, two feet, lightning fast, athletic, dominant — he could be seriously special or end up playing in Serie B.

He’s young, and we’re quick to write players off. Give him some time.

Loan – preferably abroad under an experienced and disciplined coach – stick the training wheels back on. Maybe Italy, Atalanta may be interested – but I’d want him at LB not LWB.

Next Up: Elneny, Xhaka, Partey, Ødegaard, Sambi, ESR, Pepe, Saka, Martinelli & Nketiah…

Alexander Moneypenny

Leave a Reply