Football Features

Arsenal must embrace Sevilla’s stepping stone model to progress under Unai Emery

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:54, 26 June 2019

Arsenal are trying to sign Celtic’s Kieran Tierney, allegedly having a bid of £15m turned down.

They have also been linked to Saint-Etienne’s 18-year-old French defender William Saliba, and Hungarian midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai who is also just 18. None of these signings will exactly set the blood pumping for Arsenal fans, especially when their other top-six rivals are playing with much larger sums of money trying to secure much bigger names.

But here’s the thing; these are all incredibly exciting young players that all fill needs for the Gunners. Tierney is a much more reliable left-back and left wing-back than Sead Kolasinac, Saliba is an heir to Laurent Koscielny and Szoboszlai has a phenomenal all-around skill-set and could slot into the void that Aaron Ramsey will leave when he departs for Juventus.

None of these players will set the division alight straight away of course, even Tierney – who has plenty of experience thanks to his time at Celtic – will need time to adapt. He won’t come in and start pulling up trees in the Premier League.

Normally, players like Tierney first join a mid-table club for a reasonable fee before establishing themselves and earning a move to one of the big boys for big money. Look at Virgil van Dijk and Victor Wanyama, who joined Southampton from Celtic before moving on to Liverpool and Spurs respectively. Saints were the stepping stone, developing the players and were well compensated for that.

So the question is now: are Arsenal becoming a stepping stone club? Scouting these young talents for reasonable fees (£15m for Tierney and Szoboszlai, £26m for Saliba) does indicate this may be the case. But rather than despair, Arsenal fans should relish this refocus.

During the last days (well, years) of Arsene Wenger’s reign there was no coherent transfer strategy. Sometimes the club would target superstar players other times they would seem to just try and sign whatever was available on the market. They tried to establish a transfer methodology by hiring Sven Mislintat, but internal politics meant that never worked out.

Ultimately what this led to was a weird mishmash of a squad that was neither top quality nor was it cannily put together and supremely coached. This gave Unai Emery a near-impossible task in his first year of management, because Arsenal clearly had parts of a squad to be challenging for trophies but there were parts of Emery’s team that were bang average and that prevented them from winning.

It also means Arsenal have all the headaches of an elite club, like superstar players on massive wages playing far too comfortably with styles that are not always complimentary to each other, without any of the attendant successes that make such nonsense worth it.

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Refocusing into becoming a stepping stone club makes so much more sense. Obviously Arsenal aren’t going to drop down the league and become a club like Saints, they are still Arsenal and still carry great presence with them. But being real, they haven’t won the Premier League for 15 years, and haven’t challenged for it in 11. They need the refocus.

Hell, turning into a London-based version of Sevilla (one of Europe’s finest stepping stone clubs) sounds pretty great, no? Sign a load of quality young players, build an exciting and vibrant side that achieves some level of success via a cup run or title challenge and then get picked apart to start all over again. That literally just happened to Ajax, too, and everyone bloody loves Ajax.

And given that Arsenal do still have some genuinely top-class players like Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as well as a fantastic coach in Emery who excels at precisely these kinds of stepping stone clubs, it’s not impossible to think that they could come to not only dominate the Europa League as Sevilla did, but take it further and become relevant in the Champions League too.

This is not even some alien thing to Arsenal, some radically new prospect. In fact it’s basically how Wenger made them a powerhouse in English football. He scouted young talent, usually unheard of, for thoroughly reasonable prices and then built a phenomenal side that won two titles, one without losing a game (the 1998 league title owed a significant debt to the defence he inherited but the 2002 and 2004 triumphs were monuments to Wenger’s magnificence).

For years, Sylvain Wiltord at £13m was Arsenal’s record signing. The Gunners never competed for the top-tier talent, that wasn’t Wenger’s way. He scouted and developed.

Nowadays the bar has been raised so winning titles requires more investment and replicating what Wenger did is very difficult or nearly impossible. Just look at how Spurs’ league form collapsed once they started paying attention to the Champions League. There’s only so far one can go as a stepping stone, but the journey along the way can be truly thrilling.

Watching youngsters emerge and make good on their potential as the team plays well has to spark more joy than watching a bunch of middling players (and a handful of great ones) average their way around the pitch for 50+ games a season only to end up trophyless anyway.

And if football has shown us anything, it’s that the best way to succeed besides having absolute sackloads of cash is to have a coherent plan. To be organised, efficient and well structured.

Arsenal’s recent transfer activity indicates they are looking to develop a coherent plan, to become a truly intelligent modern football club that scouts quality young talent and brings said talent in for reasonable prices.

The Gunners will then hope to develop those players so well and become so famous as a finishing school that youngsters start agitating for a move to Arsenal. Just look at Jadon Sancho leaving Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund; he knew he would play more for Dortmund and certainly be well developed by the German side.

If Arsenal embrace their stepping stone status then they could have that kind of pull and – with their facilities and status – they could be the best around at what they do.