Keep, Sell, Loan; Arsenal’s Squad ASSESSED (Part 2)

After the madness of last week, part two of the Keep, Sell & Loan list is here. Check out Part One here if you like — but otherwise, let’s get into it.

Mohamed Elneny

Mohamed Elneny is in the 99th percentile for pass completion when compared to other midfielders in the top 5 leagues.

He has always been a tidy passer who gives you reliable receiving angles and retention, even if he sometimes hides in the cover shadow — and that stat is probably significantly skewed by the amount of short, simple passes he plays; his progressive numbers are not good.

But Elneny showed a great deal more progression in the final few weeks of the season than I thought he was able to. He showed for it, turned his shoulder and played forward which takes courage, so credit to him.

A “winning mentality” gets over-indexed because it’s easier to form narratives around. Ultimately, if you can trap a ball 3% better than your opponent, then when the pressure is on, you’re nervous and the crowd is on your back, you can trust your feet and give yourself some breathing space. It’s not his mentality — it’s Elneny’s technical level that’s the issue. Limitations always get shown up at some point.

In the top 4 run in, those limitations flared up. In the crucial Tottenham & Newcastle games, his shoulders dropped and he receded to crouching over the ball and hiding. As the adrenaline pumped the ball started bouncing off him, and he found himself chasing after it, drawn to the ball.

Whether you wanted him to or not, Elneny is staying. I understand keeping him around for one more year on comparatively low wages to keep Partey out of the red zone. If we’re not signing someone to truly compete with Thomas and giving Sambi time, Elneny can bridge that experience gap for the next year and possibly one more. I doubt we’ll be seeing him the Premier League much.

Upon signing his new deal, Elneny said: “I love this club and I feel like part of this family.” He said he wants to finish his career here, and Mikel says he’s one of the most important players at the club. To have committed, hard-working and consistent professionals with a wealth of experience in your squad is a blessing — that is important for those 1% gains and the culture, even if they keep the technical floor a little lower.

N/A really, but keep, ideally in a further reduced capacity.

Granit Xhaka

Granit Xhaka’s improvement under Mikel Arteta is really not spoken about enough.

His mobility issues and heavy reliance on his left foot means his passing, receiving and shooting angles are extremely predictable, but his shift further forward and slightly in towards the left half space has shown us the best of Granit. He’s probably playing his best football of his Arsenal career. Give Xhaka the keys to the house, and he will keep it in good condition for you…

When Xhaka signed for us he was a double pivot player, requiring a more athletic and forward thinking midfield partner like Aaron Ramsey to offer the dynamism while he remained an out-ball and facilitated progression up the left flank. Now Xhaka has lofted balls over the top, he breaks lines with a lot more consistency and he has an urgency to his game that is in stark contrast to the slightly cautious passion-ball he was playing before. He’s still really a pivot player, but recognises his limitations and maximises them, opening out his body to his favoured foot and playing forward even more.

So do we keep him?

I’m sure Arteta wants him around to set the tone in training, and there is some value to that — though I have to say the lack of explicit responsibility taken in the strange black and white video (now deleted?) released earlier on in the year did rub me up the wrong way. There’s a consistent flirtation with the Bundesliga, somewhere I’m sure he’d feel more comfortable, with more space in the distances on-field. He evidently doesn’t want to leave with the fact that he never qualified for the UCL with Arsenal hanging over his head.

I think this one all depends on how our other business goes. Reportedly the Tielemans deal is lined up and we’re completing other business before we consider our options there. Fans will panic, but I think that makes sense — we have more options than we might believe at left 8. 

There was a brilliant (as per) bit on The Arsenal Vision Podcast recently, where Clive Palmer discussed the possibility of Ødegaard coming into the left 8 role. The potential Raphinha signing will mean less adaptation needed on the exterior, so we won’t have to play with more of an interior left like Emile Smith Rowe as much. Lisandro Martinez then might be able to invert from LB and sit in the pocket where Xhaka likes to, meaning the 8 sits further up in the inside left lane, as opposed to the left full back as it’s been before (e.g. Tierney). With ESR, Sambi and even Saka, there’s lots of options on the left interior.

This all renders Xhaka redundant.

It all depends on what Arteta wants to do, and I’m so excited to see how he solves that conundrum — I don’t think he’ll do what we expect him to do. I would opt for the fabled ‘Xhaka replacement’, but I have a feeling he won’t do it that way.

Sell, just.

Thomas Partey

Thomas Partey is a simple one.

He’s criminally underrated, probably one of the best single pivot players in world football, in the Rodri and Fabinho conversations. His deep progression, defensive positioning, ability to spring forward and get through and around and his almost super-human capacity to reach around players and pinch the ball are all world class.

There’s nothing technical here — go and watch his performance at home against Manchester City; it’s all about his fitness. Unless he can remain fit, he will never be considered in that class outside of Arsenal fans, and he’ll never truly be able to show what he can do. I hope Arteta can manage his load a bit better, but as I always say with non-impact injuries, the player must manage themselves too. No one else can feel for them. Get in the gym and strengthen around those hamstrings.

Keep, obviously.

Martin Ødegaard

This boy is going to explode next season.

Arteta recently said: “What Martin is doing now, you do not see on the field now. We see it in three months, six months or a year.”

When other players such as Aaron Ramsdale talk about Ødegaard, they speak about how close he is to Mikel, describing him as the “teachers pet”. Ødegaard is hungry to learn and improve, and you see that in his work on the pitch. His body positions to receive the ball are always top, top class, the optimal set up to immediately progress or find a team mate. He leads the press intelligently, ensuring the passing lanes are blocked before advancing further, and his combinations with Saka… well. It’s always worth keeping in mind how young these guys are.

He speaks about the little details Arteta works on with him. Finding the right spaces in the game, what part of the pitch to attack and the optimal movements when linking up with other players.

I’d like to see him add a little more urgency to his attacking game. I think his ridiculous technical level means he’s never had to deal with much pressure or felt in particular danger with the ball at his feet, so he takes time to pick a pass — not always a bad thing, but it doesn’t suit every situation. Some ladder work and 2v1 situations in training might help him to skip past players and get his shot off sooner, something I’d like to see him do more of as one of the front 5 — he’s in the 28th percentile for shots when compared to other attacking midfielders in the top 5 leagues.

He also needs to be careful of being clumsy in the box — two very similar penalties conceded last season.

Keep at all costs. How we managed to pay only £30m for him I’ll never know.

Albert Sambi Lokonga

I really like Sambi. 

Smooth player, glides across the pitch, and had a relatively secure first season. Scans supremely well and I think as his body matures he’ll be able to show the massive football IQ he has too. He can use both feet and he’s great at receiving off the first line and driving forward. In the team of progressers Arteta is trying to build, he fits right in. He always wants the ball, and he always finds pockets to receive it.

I want to pick out one moment — Crystal Palace away, coming on as a substitute for Partey. He drops to receive from Xhaka and finds himself in a good deal of space as Palace sit in a low block. He notices the movement from Nketiah ahead of him. A lot of midfielders at 3 down and at his age would attempt a lofted ball or go first time, but instead he delays his pass and ends up timing it to perfection. It’s a really inconsequential bit of play but I remember watching it and thinking: smart player. There’s a lot of detail that we miss.

I have nothing majorly specific — his shot technique could use some work possibly, he needs to try and strike through the ball a bit more as it ends up looking a bit feeble. It also might be worth trying him out in a number of positions and zones on the pitch to find his best one. I think he’ll play 8 a bit more this season, as he did against Everton on final day.

Vincent Kompany speaks glowingly about him. When someone of his stature, who has played with such a player, calls him the new Yaya Toure — we may have something special on our hands. If we signed 2 top class midfielders capable of 8 and 6 respectively, I’d consider sending him out on loan to play every minute but I don’t think that will happen.

He’s a modern central midfielder in every aspect. Let him grow into his body and give him time — as we’ve seen from his time at Anderlecht, at 22 he can also be a leader.


Emile Smith Rowe

Smith Rowe has all the ingredients. Tall, elegant, both feet, can receive, can pass, can shoot. He’s a great goal threat and though I wouldn’t go quite as far Jamie Carragher, who says he’s the best player in the Premier League at this, he is excellent at carrying the ball. His goal and shot numbers speak for themselves.

I just can’t quite work out what he is.

He’s not a wide player that I think we want to hug a touchline, nor totally an 8, nor a false 9 yet. In a way, it doesn’t matter for us — we can use him in so many zones and many game states, but it does matter for him. If I were him, I’d be in Arteta’s ear asking what zone of the pitch he should try and nail down, or he might be caught in the Ainsley Maitland-Niles situation. Not enough minutes for the quality of player he is.

I know this might sound mental, but he might do well on a loan if he was guaranteed a slot in the zone he picks. I don’t actually think we should or would do it but if he played every game in a season in a Connor Gallagher type way, he might come back to Arsenal with a bigger reputation and be an almost guaranteed starter. If I were him and his representatives, I might push for that in January, dependent on how things go. He took the 10 too early for me, as I said last year — though I like the ambition.

There’s something going on with his fitness. He lacks the explosiveness and an ability to ride a challenge that we saw at the beginning of his Arsenal career. There’s a reluctancy to put in a tackle and a tendency to cut inside rather than beat a player on the outside. Smith Rowe is faster than we think — watch his goal for England’s u21s here. Why doesn’t he use it?

I was half expecting at the end of this season we’d hear something about a surgery on a hip or something that would mean he’d miss some of pre-season. Maybe we will, who knows. Perhaps the Amazon documentary will shed some light on a secret season long struggle.

Nothing technical really that I can see from a fan perspective. I’d like to see his ego grow a bit, to a good place. He’s extremely humble, which isn’t a bad thing at his age, but it might see him fade into the background. There’s plenty of humble players who don’t demand what they need and get left behind.

Keep. Though I have to say, if a crazy offer came in, I would be thinking about it. 

Perhaps the mighty Aston Villa, who are a bigger club than us by the way, would be a good location for his UCL dream.

Nicolas Pepe

Sell. Sell. Sell.

Looks disinterested, doesn’t feel like he wants to play for Arteta, and despite a promising end to the 20/21 campaign, he hasn’t pushed on. Saka hasn’t helped, but that’s the game. At some point, as much as a player excites you in theory, it’s just best for all parties to move on.

I’ve nothing to say, you know his limitations. He can’t hack positional play, he needs wide spaces. That’s that. One of the worst deals in Arsenal’s history and I don’t blame anyone who’s still at the club.

Sell. Anything above £15m will do me.

Bukayo Saka

The starboy. 

Get the quality around him, then stick him on the sofa with his feet up for those Carabao Cup and Europa League group games. We’ve asked a man who was doing his GCSEs in 2018 to carry the club for about 2.5 years. He’s good enough, but we don’t want another Wilshere situation.

He’s so robust, his ability to beat a man 1v1 on the inside or outside is incredible, and Arteta and Southgate can’t speak highly enough of him. He can hug the touchline, pull inside or go beyond all with equal verve and elegance. I recently watched one of his early Europa League appearances and remembered how excellent he can look centrally too. 

His finishing could use some work, but that will just come with time and shooting drills. With the talent he has, he can start pulling rank — and he’s started to do so with the penalties.

Let’s hope the club can match his ambition, because this guy is going right to the very top. Sell to Man City in Summer 2024. Sorry, what was the question?


Gabriel Martinelli

Top player, top mentality.

He reminds of that kid at school who was literally obsessed with football. Football posters on the wall, drawing dream XIs in Maths, that kid.

I think at some point next season we’ll see a new side of Martinelli, a Ronaldo-esque clutch player. His finishing is excellent, it’s just about picking up more positions and being a bit smarter with the out to in runs. I don’t doubt at some point we’ll have a run or a dip in form which he pulls us through. You don’t go from Ituano to the Premier League without some self belief.

He’s a great pressing forward, and with 5 subs next season he can run himself into the ground for 60 minutes before being hooked.

I love the little winks he does to camera. He knows. Credit to GunnerBallZ for the photo below.

Keep. Simple.

Eddie Nketiah

I’m torn on Eddie’s new deal.

Financially it makes sense without the transfer fee, and I accept that it may be a grass is greener situation, but I just can’t see how he gets us where we want to go. He’s supposedly an incredible trainer and is genuinely a great all round striker, but with the minutes he’ll be wanting, is it worth it?

I was an advocate of getting a tall wide man who can play through the middle when we need it, and I think we still lack an aerial threat. What does Nketiah do that Jesus can’t? How does it all piece together? I just can’t quite see what the plan is, but I’m happy to be wrong.

Perhaps the plan is to sell him next summer, and the contract protects that value. 

Technically, his all round game has really improved, and as he’s said himself he’s really worked on it with Arteta. I’d like to see him work on his first touch, it bounces off him quite a bit and as a relatively small player, good positioning in the box is imperative. Against top level centre backs, as much as we have a vision of him as a fox in the box, he gets worked out.

Keep… not that it matters now.

So there you go. Squad assessed. The summer is going to be long — if you’ve got this far into the article, you’re probably a pretty patient person anyway, but I wanted to say one thing:

Priority ≠ Strategy.

Going for a player first doesn’t necessarily indicate priority. Remember the scraps of information we’re feeding on, and trust the club to get it right as they have done over these past few years. Be patient. And most of all… enjoy the ride.

Alexander Moneypenny

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