Unai Emery Must Be Creative With Limited Transfer Budget
It seems that the existential pain of being an Arsenal fan is unending. More than a fortnight after Gunners’ annihilation in Azerbaijan in the Europa League final, it increasingly appears obvious that the club does not have the means to rectify all of the shortcomings that were on display for all the world to see in Baku. The figure of £40 million to £45 million that has been widely reported as being the size of the transfer fund for Unai Emery since January, when the Gunners failed to strengthen significantly in the last transfer window (despite having just lost two key defenders, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin, for the season to injury), seems to be accurate.
Indeed, just this week even the Arsenal Supporters Trust confirmed the club’s financial woes after two seasons out of the Champions League. So, with only £40 million to £45 million to spend, when a more realistic figure to fix the team’s woes would be £400 million to £450 million, how does Unai Emery possibly go about improving Arsenal? The answer is by being creative.
Unai Emery Must Be Creative With Limited Transfer Budget
Don’t Sell The Strikers
The first thing that Emery should do is to insist to Arsenal that they should not even consider selling either of their star strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Even before the 4-1 humiliation by Chelsea, there were rumours that one of them might have to be sold to bolster the meagre transfer fund. However, that would be completely the wrong thing to do, because the attack – specifically, scoring goals – has been the one part of the Arsenal side that has functioned well this season.
In retrospect, it is frankly astonishing how well Aubameyang and Lacazette, especially the former, did last season, given how poor the rest of the Arsenal team is. They scored a round half-century of goals between them in all competitions and Aubameyang’s 22 Premier League goals even gave him a share of the Golden Boot for top scorer in the Premier League, alongside Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane of Liverpool. Liverpool challenged for the title until the very last day of the season, whereas Arsenal virtually capitulated at the end of the season to mess up any chance of making the top four, so it is a testament to Aubameyang’s pure goal-scoring ability that he could score so many goals in such an underwhelming team.
As for Lacazette, those who think that the French striker is expendable should also think again. It is precisely the partnership between the two strikers that is the only real strength of the current Arsenal side. Lacazette has the physical strength and hold-up play, and Aubameyang the pace and finishing ability, that make them such a fearsome pairing. Even in an age when most clubs play with only one striker, it would be completely foolhardy for Arsenal to sacrifice the one well-functioning part of the team to try and improve the other obvious deficiencies. So Emery should leave the attack well alone and look instead at the defence and midfield to see how and where he can make improvements.
Use Sead Kolasinac Instead of Buying Yannick Carrasco
In midfield, the only player who Arsenal have been strongly linked with this summer so far is the Belgian left-winger/wingback, Yannick Carrasco, who left Atletico Madrid last year for Dalian Yifang in China. One report has come from HITC’s Danny Owen. Although Carrasco is undoubtedly a good player (and as such should never have taken early retirement in China), Arsenal already have a player who they can employ as a left-winger/wingback, namely Sead Kolasinac. So they should save their limited transfer funds to strengthen the defence instead.
It was Arsene Wenger himself, in his dotage as the Arsenal manager, who first seriously questioned Kolasinac’s ability to play as a full-back, that is in an orthodox back four. It turns out that in this respect, if no other, Wenger was right, because Kolasinac’s defensive abilities were repeatedly exposed last season whenever he played as a straightforward full-back. By contrast, his considerable acceleration and incredible crossing ability are one of Arsenal’s few strong points, and so Emery should forget all about Carrasco and instead start regarding Kolasinac as a left-winger/left-sided midfielder. That would maximise his strengths (in attack), while minimising his weaknesses (in defence), and allow Emery to concentrate on signing a proper, defensively minded left-back instead.
Arsenal Need An Entirely New Defence
Of course, the real problem with Arsenal is not that they just need a new left-back but that they need an entirely new defence. It is not an exaggeration to say that they have not had a real, properly-drilled defence for nearly a decade now, and yet successive managers (or at least Wenger and Emery) have done nothing substantial to improve it. All of those shortcomings, including an absolutely critical lack of pace and heading ability in central defence, were laid bare in Baku. Now, with the two best defenders of the last ten years, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, looking as if they are finally heading for the Emirates exit door, it is time for Emery to address Arsenal’s single biggest problem and finally build a defence worthy of the name.
Emery will undoubtedly be helped by the return (whenever it comes) of both Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin. Until his injury at Old Trafford in December, Holding was a contender for the title of the most improved player under Emery’ alongside Lacazette, and his loss for the second half of the season was one of the main reasons why Arsenal’s defensive structure ultimately collapsed. If he can return to that kind of form when he returns to the team (and the latest reports are that he should be back in the autumn), then he alone will bring some much-needed defensive qualities to Arsenal’s defence.
The question then is who to play alongside him. Sokratis did reasonably well last season, but no more than that, and at 31 already he is not exactly one for the future. Instead, Emery must hope that his other Greek centre-back, Konstantinos Mavropanos, can finally stay fit and show consistently the qualities that persuaded Sven Mislintat, the now-departed chief scout, to bring him in last year.
However, there is also another young (or at least young-ish) centre-back to consider, and that is Calum Chambers. Since Chambers signed for Arsenal from Southampton in 2014, he has spent almost as much time on loan at other clubs as he has at the Emirates, and it is hardly encouraging that both the clubs he was loaned to (first Middlesbrough and then Fulham) were both relegated while he was playing for them. Nevertheless, Emery obviously thought sufficiently highly of Chambers to ensure that Arsenal awarded him a new contract last season (before, mystifyingly, he was sent out on loan again to Fulham) and now he has to show that faith on the pitch. A centre-back pairing of Holding and Chambers, with Sokratis and Mavropanos as back-up players, may not be in the Virgil van Dijk-Joe Gomez class but it is still likely to be significantly better than any combination of the ageing Koscielny and Monreal, and the ‘Emperor of Errors’, Shkodran Mustafi.
Left-Back a Priority
These minor changes – using Kolasinac as a wide-left player rather than buying Carrasco, establishing a new centre-back pairing of Holding and Chambers, and NOT selling either of Aumabeyang or Lacazette – would allow Emery to use whatever funds he has (that now fabled £40 million to £45 million) where they are most needed, namely in defence and specifically at left-back. If Leicester and England’s Ben Chilwell is out of Arsenal’s budget (and he most certainly is), then they should at least consider buying a young and promising left-back, such as West Ham’s Arthur Masuaku. If they have to spend the bulk of the transfer fund on that one player/position, then so be it. That would still be wiser than frittering away half of it on a player, such as Carrasco, who Arsenal do not really need and who they can already ‘replace’ from within their ranks.
Minor Changes May Not Be Enough
Ultimately, however, the fear is that all these minor changes and minimal additions to the squad, which are all that are really possible with such a limited transfer budget, will not nearly be enough to improve Arsenal enough, such that they can challenge for a Champions League place again. As has already been pointed out by many fans and writers, the more plausible scenario for Arsenal currently is not that they will catch Manchester City, Liverpool and the other top four sides but that they themselves will be overtaken by the upwardly mobile teams in the Premier League, such as Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. If that happens, then Emery, unless he can somehow persuade Stan Kroenke to give him a realistic transfer budget (which, as said at the top, should be nearer £400 million than £40 million), will be gone by Christmas, either by his own choosing or that of the club.