Today I wanted to write a more positive piece. The mood surrounding Arsenal right now is very sour, and we have made our worst Premier League start in years. It is clear that there are hardly any positives to take from the here and now. Here’s the thing; everybody expected this. The impact that Arsene Wenger had on this club and the running of this club was always going to lead to a few years of pain once his guidance was removed. I think some fans need to remember how accepting they were of this danger when they were waving their WengerOut banners. It is easy to claim that you are willing to sit through a few tough years for us to end up back at the top of English and European football, however some fans are finding this particularly difficult to do right now. In fairness, this is totally understandable. We are still recovering from Wenger’s departure, but we finally have a man with a plan in Mikel Arteta. Like any manager, he isn’t without his flaws and he will make some mistakes, but most fans will still agree that we trust in his process. So, let’s start thinking in a more speculative positive way. I wanted to look to the future, when we’ve gotten through what is likely to be a very tough couple of years. How are Arsenal going to line up in 3 years’ time and what steps need to be made to get there.
Goalkeeper – Bernd Leno
In 3 years, Arsenal may well want to start thinking about a long-term replacement, but Leno as a goalkeeper will still be our number 1 in 3 years. He will be 31 which for many keepers is the perfect age. He has hardly let us down so far and frankly is one of the few positives we can take from this season.
Fullbacks – Kieran Tierney and Ainsley Maitland-Niles
A tale of two fullbacks. One is nailed on to be a stalwart in the Arsenal side for the foreseeable. In fact, many fans hope to see Tierney as an Arsenal captain one day, and from what I’ve seen from him he would be an excellent one. Maitland-Niles is a bit more of a guess. Frankly, I think it is more likely that Bellerin will be our right back for the next few years. However, what Arteta should be doing is throwing down the gauntlet to Maitland-Niles. He has a few years on Bellerin. I also think he is a more rounded defender, particularly in one versus one defending scenarios. Arteta needs to make something clear to Ainsley; it is clear that his preferred position in either central midfield or as a winger is not in Arteta’s plans. And I would agree; naturally he is young and can change his career path, but for me he should be a defender. But Arteta needs to tell him that Ainsley needs to make the task of being Arsenal’s starting right-back his mission, and embrace that. Improve his final ball, his positional awareness and his discipline, every day in training. If he can come to terms with this, and can focus his efforts on this role, he can easily become a better right back option for Arsenal. Bellerin is solid, but in over 5 years in the first team, we are yet to see real improvements from Bellerin, particularly in terms of crossing.
Centre backs – Gabriel and William Saliba
This one is more of a no-brainer. Even rival fans have admitted that Gabriel is one of the best centre backs in the league. And at just 22 years of age, he will look like one of Arsenal’s greatest ever signings if he carries on this trajectory for the next 3 years. With regards to William Saliba, it is clear that he has had a very slow start to life at Arsenal. But this has very much been deliberate. Arteta clearly wants to take his time with the youngster, safe in the knowledge that this will pay off in 3 years’ time when Saliba is an accomplished young centre-back to partner with Gabriel.
Midfield 3 – Thomas Partey, Houssem Aouar and Dominik Szoboszlai
This is where Arteta’s plan kicks in. He has already made it abundantly clear that he wants to move to a 4-3-3, much like what we have seen gain so much success for his former club Manchester City. He has also made it clear that he does not currently have the personnel to do so. And I think that this is quite obvious. Apart from Partey, can we really claim to have a single midfielder that would start for any of our closest rivals. We clearly lack the players who can play the particular roles; something that Arteta has admitted. But I wanted to clarify what he means by this. Manchester City’s midfield works perfectly and for good reason – it is more than having 3 good midfielders. There has to be a balance. Fernandinho is the rock, he breaks up play, suffocates the opposition’s attacks and ensures that the transition from defence to attack and vice versa happens seamlessly and without risk. Bernardo Silva acts as ‘string-puller’ if you like. He receives the ball, often in deep positions, and turning to drive forward and exploit the dangerous pockets of space left open by the opposition. He does not shatter any records with his amount of goals and assists, but he is crucial in keeping Manchester City on the front foot and creating space for the attackers to operate more freely in. Then, City have De Bruyne who is the talisman. The guy who operates just behind the striker and has the quality in the final action. He is the man to score a goal from outside the box or play that crucial final ball. Defenders often worry themselves so much about his quality in and around the box, that the striker often goes unnoticed. This is how you achieve a perfectly-balanced midfield. I look at this potential Arsenal midfield and see this same balance and functionality. Partey does everything that Fernandinho does and more. Aouar is similar to Bernardo Silva. He prides himself on keeping things ticking for Lyon; everything goes through him. And if you understand football you realise that his contribution to the team does not depend on how many goals and assists he grabs. Finally, I have made my thoughts on Szoboszlai abundantly clear; he is generational. It’s fair to say that right now he is no Kevin De Bruyne, but stylistically there are a lot of similarities. Dead ball specialists, comfortable on both feet, able to score a variety of goals and provide a variety of assists. And he is only 20! He may be some way off KDB right now, but under Arteta he may well reach that level one day. The best part about this new-look midfield is that it resolves almost all of our most pressing, current issues in just 2 transfers. 2 transfers which rumour has it we could see executed as soon as January.
Front 3 – Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe
This is a really exciting prospect. With a hopefully new and improved Maitland-Niles overlapping, Nicolas Pepe can drift inside and show us all of his best qualities. Some fans have already given up on Pepe, but I know just how good he can be playing in a more effective and creative system. In fact, in 3 years’ time I’m confident that he will look like a brilliant signing. His ability one on one is excellent, and his final ball is improving all the time. Meanwhile, the other 2 names are perhaps the 2 most exciting Premier League prospects right now. Unlike Pepe, Saka will thrive on those wider areas. I expect him to start developing in a way that Arteta helped Leroy Sane develop. If he can grow a reputation of being excellent at beating a man and getting a cross in, the fear of Saka alone will make everyone around him look so much better. He might choose to get to the byline and cross. He may look to come inside and then use Tierney on the overlap. Or he may occupy 2 or 3 defenders, freeing up Szoboszlai on the end of the box to test the keeper. Whatever way he chooses to do it, Saka might just be our best and most valuable attacking asset in 3 years. However, a guy who is perhaps even more exciting than Saka is Martinelli. The young Brazilian may claim to prefer to play on the left, but through the middle Martinelli might just become the most well-rounded striker you could wish for. Firstly, he has bundles of pace to burn, and the appropriate positional awareness to go with it. His ability to get in behind and press the defenders for 90 minutes will be invaluable. Even in games where the opposition sit deep against us, he will be a threat. He has already scored such a variety of goals for Arsenal, including a couple of towering headers. Put some creative players around him, and he might just become an Arsenal legend. But we have to commit to this vision; it will take some time and patience to get there, but once there we will have a team that can go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite for a number of years.
This is Arsenal and Arteta’s ‘process’ back to the very top…