Hal Walker reflects on Arsenal’s summer transfer window so far and whether their new arrivals can help the club challenge for a top-four spot.
A year into Unai Emery’s reign at the Emirates Stadium and you would be forgiven for being just as uncertain as to what the future holds as the majority were following last summer’s belated departure of Arsene Wenger after 22 years at the helm.
Appointing such a contrasting character with a markedly varying footballing philosophy to his predecessor was bound to add an air of unpredictability to the Gunners’ 2018/19 season as they took time to buy into the Spaniard’s management style and so it proved.
Inconsistent form – including some truly forgettable away performances – and a humiliating Europa League Final defeat was somewhat softened by a league finish that was one position and seven points superior than in Wenger’s farewell campaign, but the fact remains that it is now four years since their previous top-four finish. The concern around the rise in form and the assembling strengths of Leicester, Wolves and Everton is only exacerbated by the widening domestic chasm to London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham, not to mention title chasers Manchester City and Liverpool.
A perpetual source of supporter concern and media criticism – throughout last season and indeed the last half-decade of Wenger’s reign – has been their defensive fragility and lack of leadership that is trajected by the plain lack of resilience and strength of character to manage high-pressured games.
It was therefore a surprise to most last month to see the club make a statement by securing the services of two in-demand European attacking talents, most recently by smashing their transfer record by confirm the £72m acquisition of wide forward Nicolas Pepe from Lille. The Ivorian, a sinuous and skilful forward with a potent eye for goal, notched 22 Ligue 1 goals last season and was a crucial factor in his side finishing runners-up to French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
“In Ligue 1, in terms of potential, he is right behind Neymar and Mbappe” Lille manager Christophe Galtier extolled last season. Such praise, added to the fact Arsenal have signed the 24-year-old ahead of fellow heavyweights Liverpool, Napoli and Inter Milan, has understandably given Gunners fans hope of a sustained top-four challenge this season, not to mention the prospect of Pepe linking up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazatte – who scored 35 Premier League goals between them in 2018/19.
The February departure of former head of recruitment Sven Mislintat revealed a conflicted internal transfer policy between manager and hierarchy and the season-loan signing of 22-year-old Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid, indicates that the club are now backing the manager in the market he knows best.
Ceballos, an assured, possession-centric technician, will bring immeasurable attacking quality to an Arsenal midfield looking to replace one of their more consistent performers in Aaron Ramsey. The Spanish playmaker is a hybrid between a No 8 and a No 10 with the creative versatility to perform behind the forward line to unlock defences or deeper in midfield where his quality on the ball can dictate play.
Both additions are sure to be all well and good for Arsenal’s attacking prowess, but the shirking of solidifying a back four that has appeared porous and incoherent – particularly on set-pieces on numerous occasions – will only precipitate further inferior performances against fellow top-six sides. Indeed, the disastrous defensive negligence from Shkodran Mustafi against Crystal Palace on 21 April effectively relinquished Arsenal’s hold on a Champions League spot.
The arrival of William Saliba, a precocious young defender from Saint-Etienne who will be loaned back to the Ligue 1 club next season, is a promising move for the future of Arsenal’s backline but alone will simply not suffice.
The problem is likely to present a significant headache for Unai Emery unless the club act by Thursday’s close of the transfer window.
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