After showing so many promising signs, Arsenal’s season fizzled out into a fifth-place finish and humiliation in the Europa League final against Chelsea.
Despite having one of the most potent strike partnerships in English football in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, Unai Emery has had to deal with some serious shortcomings in the Arsenal defence, as well as a distinct lack of options in wide areas. The fact they were still in the conversation for top four places and major honours is a testament to the work he’s done in north London so far.
But rather than backing the Spaniard with a war chest in their search for a return to the Champions League, the powers that be at Arsenal will only be handing Emery a reported £40m budget with which to strengthen his squad. To put that into some perspective, Bournemouth spent double that amount across last season’s two transfer windows. The same Bournemouth which has never won a major trophy and whose stadium holds just 11,329 people, compared to Arsenal’s 60,260-seater Emirates stadium, complete with 13 English league titles, 13 FA Cups and the rest.
But Emery is relentlessly committed to his work, scratching around for a few quid won’t stop him in his quest to achieve greatness in English football. He’ll just have to be a little creative with that shoestring budget and at Squawka, we’ve come up with three ways in which he can do that.
1. The French market
Arsenal need wingers and added depth in midfield, but most definitely not at a price which breaks the bank. Luckily for Emery, the French market is currently stacked with a bunch of talented players in both positions, all of which could perfectly fit the Gunners’ budget.
Lille’s Nicolas Pepe may prove to be too expensive for Arsenal but Rennes winger Ismaila Sarr, who scored against Emery’s side during their Europa League clash earlier in the season, has been touted as a perfect alternative.
Sarr completed two dribbles per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 last season, just 0.76 behind Pepe, while he created 11 big chances for his teammates compared to 16 for the Lille man. Sure, he sits behind his counterpart in most metrics, but he isn’t light years away and racked up his numbers for a Rennes side which finished eight places, 23 points and 13 goals behind the Ligue 1 runners-up. A £25m fee leaves Emery with some extra wiggle room in the market, while reported competition from Leicester should be easy enough to brush aside for a club of Arsenal’s stature.
But remember that midfielder they need? Lucas Torreira has been a ray of light in an otherwise dull season in the engine room at the Emirates but he cost £25m. A player of his quality doesn’t often come along for that price and as ever with buying younger players from foreign leagues, there is risk involved.
Let’s not forget, though, that Adrien Rabiot is now available on a free transfer. The France international played 89 times for PSG under Emery between 2016-18 but was restricted to just 20 appearances last season following his departure. Thomas Tuchel wants rid, Rabiot doesn’t want a new contract and PSG are set to lose an immensely valuable and talent midfielder for absolutely nothing.
Manchester United and, surprisingly, Everton have emerged as the recent favourites for Rabiot’s signature but a reunion with Emery could be favourable for the 24-year-old, who will bring excellent control and finesse to Arsenal’s midfield.
Speaking about Emery back in 2016, Rabiot told Goal: “[Laurent] Blanc had certain things going for him but I think Emery is a little closer to the players.
“This is a coach who really communicates with everyone. He is asking us our opinion after the sessions, what we liked, what we didn’t like.”
The Gunners finished above United in the Premier League and although they were humbled in the Europa League final, their ability to reach the final at the expense of tough opposition shows the true potential of Emery’s side – potential which could just tempt Rabiot.
Two top-class signings for Arsenal, with £15m still in the bank to sort that creaking defence.
2. Start from the back
Only Man Utd (54) conceded more goals than Arsenal (51) among the Premier League’s top six and that goals against column needs some serious attention.
We’ve all seen just how much of a difference a world-class defender can make to a team: Aymeric Laporte and Virgil van Dijk have been almost revolutionary in their roles at Man City and Liverpool, respectively. But they cost a combined £132m. Arsenal have £40m to split between their entire squad.
The strike force is sorted, Aubameyang and Lacazette have enough firepower and understanding between them, while young Eddie Nketiah received plenty of minutes toward the end of the season. And let’s say Arsenal do sign Rabiot on a free. He, alongside Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi should have enough to match almost every Premier League side in terms of ball retention and competitiveness without possession. It certainly takes that position down the priority list.
That leaves Emery with a whole £40m with which to plug the gaps at the back. Hector Bellerin should be fit to play for the start of next season and despite a few defensive question marks, he and Sead Kolasinac are far more accomplished than some of Arsenal’s centre-backs, such as the disastrous Shkodran Mustafi.
Step forward, Getafe’s Djene Dakonam. The Togolese defender was relentless last season, making more interceptions (74) than any other La Liga defender as Getafe finished fifth and missed out on Champions League football by just two points.
Alongside relegated Fulham, Arsenal made a league-high 28 errors leading to shots last season and between the likes of Mustafi and Stephan Lichtsteiner, they were a disaster waiting to happen in almost every game they played, with indecisiveness and incompetence costing them on a number of occasions. Dakonam has poise and strength in abundance and would go a long way to providing Emery with a more secure platform at the back.
Sure, the £30m fee would mean sacrificing the signing of Sarr, but Emery has enough attacking talent at his disposal to change system if required, while the return of Reiss Nelson from his loan spell at Hoffenheim adds another winger to his squad, sort of acting as a new signing. And as we’ve seen time and time again, the very best defences usually come out on top.
3. Sell to buy
Allowing Aaron Ramsey to leave on a free was a horrendous decision from the Arsenal hierarchy but that squad is still packed full of sellable assets. One of the most valuable of those assets is German playmaker, Mesut Ozil.
Ozil had arguably his worst campaign in an Arsenal shirt last season, providing just five goals and two assists all season in the Premier League. The 30-year-old has come in for a lot of unwarranted criticism during his spell at the Emirates but this time, there’s little defending him.
Reports now suggest Emery wants Ozil off the books, no matter what. The Germany international only signed a lucrative contract extension last year, meaning Arsenal will look to get a sizeable fee for him. Despite his failings during 2018/19, Ozil remains a talented playmaker who could attract interest from a number of clubs.
His transfer fee would bolster Emery’s budget, allowing for the arrival of both Sarr and Dakonam, while getting his reported, gargantuan £350,000 per week wages off the bill would free up the funds needed to tempt Rabiot to north London.
Arsenal cult-hero Perry Groves has urged Emery to use his entire existing budget on Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser – who finished only behind Eden Hazard (15) on 14 Premier League assists last term – and Brighton defensive rock Lewis Dunk. The sale of Ozil would allow this to happen, as well as bringing in the aforementioned targets.
Just as Liverpool did with the sale of Philippe Coutinho, Arsenal could sell one star playmaker to revamp their entire squad.