Arsenal has finished outside the top six for the first time since 1995 and for only the third time in the Premier League era. It is now up to Head of Football Raul Sanllehi and Co. to begin rebuilding the squad in a manner consistent with Mikel Arteta’s vision.
Raul Sanllehi was hailed as “Don Raul” by Arsenal fans last year following a summer of big spending. Per transfermarkt, Arsenal had the third-highest net spend prior to the 2019/20 season, and there was plenty of excitement as the team, on paper, looked set to make a serious push for a top-four finish.
Obviously, things didn’t go as planned as Arsenal went backward rather than forwards this season. The club’s executives were justifiably criticized for continuing to back Unai Emery during an abysmal run of form from September to November. That’s all in the past now, though; there is once again a feeling of cautious optimism around the club now that Mikel Arteta is in charge.
In fairness to Sanllehi, since his promotion following the departure of Ivan Gazidis, most of Arsenal’s signings have fared well, and there is clearly a lot of potential.
The club has done well to acquire Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Martinelli, and William Saliba to supplement the likes of Bukayo Saka and other academy graduates. Furthermore, the goalkeeper position appears to be secured for the foreseeable future, with two excellent options in Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martinez. So Arsenal do at least have some building blocks.
Still, huge gaps in quality remain in both central defense and midfield: the spine of the team. Right now, Granit Xhaka has become that spine, practically on his own. Arsenal’s last seven league games in which Xhaka did not start resulted in five losses and two draws. He has been excellent under Arteta, but it is also quite revealing that Arsenal are so reliant on a player who has obvious limitations to his game. For all his positive attributes, Xhaka has always lacked pace, mobility, and defensive instincts.
And question marks remain over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s future. Will the club be able to hang onto its best player, and if not, what is the plan to replace his goals? The men ultimately responsible for the latter question are Sanllehi and technical director Edu, whose role includes overseeing recruitment and long-term squad building.
A full rebuild won’t happen overnight, and fans must remain patient. Liverpool hired Jurgen Klopp in 2015, and it took a couple years before they returned to the conversation as title challengers. But, as Arteta himself remarked after the 2-1 win over Liverpool, “You know how you build those squads, there is no magic. You need to improve with quality players and you need bigger squads to compete in this competition.”
The transfer window is now open, and the next ten weeks will be very telling as to how invested the club’s executives and owners are in their new head coach.