5 Hidden UCL gems who would fit Arsenal's blossoming project
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
My wonderful coworker Daniel Finton, of Finton's Frolic fame, has a wonderful expression, coined months ago, before I earned the wonderful title of "Senior Writer." He used to refer to my articles as "classic Mac pieces," because of my tendency to talk. And talk. And talk.
In an industry built for three-minute, 400-word reads, I am the master of a 15-minute article pushing 1500, with details nobody asked for, and often that they don't care about. And for those of you who listen to the Arsenal Cannon Podcast, not to mention its spotlight-stealing sideshow, the Extra Cannon Podcast (co-hosted by yours truly), you'll know that my propensity to ramble, rant, and generally say too much is not limited to my journalistic pursuits.
It's not so much that I love the sound of my own voice. Quite the opposite in fact. Simply put, I am the type of person who throws themself at every project they undergo, and doesn't stop until they believe the job is done.
"But Mac," you might ask, "why are you throwing a cover-letter at us today, instead of just getting on with whatever asinine dogwater you've got stewing in your proverbial crock pot?" Actually, scratch that, please don't ask me that. For one, I have to be the smartest-sounding person in the room at all times, and for another, you'd hurt my feelings. So let me just tell you.
In recent years, the project that has consumed most of my attention is football. I'm an Arsenal fan above all else—couldn't you tell?—but my passion for football extends far beyond North London. Specifically, I'm quite obsessed with the lesser-known sides of football. I love digging deep into smaller leagues, or looking at under-the-radar players who I think can make it big.
Get the hint yet?
The mission for today is simple: provide fuel to the currently growing fire that is this Arsenal rebuild. Or, to de-extend (is that a word?) the metaphor, look at some hidden gems who could seriously augment our team as early as January.
The only stipulation I'm placing is an age restriction; based on the club's current average age—just over 24—and Arteta's current recruiting profile, based off this summer's business—between 20 and 23, but currently operating at a decently high level—it stands to reason that the players necessary to augment this team should fall into that mold.
And by the nature of a hidden gem, these players will not be exorbitantly expensive. Unfortunately, due to the modern market, players of the necessary quality will cost between £10 and £30m, and due to the needs of the club, many of the prices I quote today will be nearer to the upper end of that limit. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that all five of the players mentioned today play for Champions League clubs. However, I must stress, every estimate is based off a slight increase on market value that most clubs are liable to pay for any young star.
And with that, let's hop into the list. As always, a massive thank you to FBREF for supplying statistics.
Content warning: unbelievably heavy statistical analysis ahead.
5. Pedro Gonçalves - Sporting CP
Estimated Price: £27-35m
Reported Release Clause: £52m
Ideal Position: False-9
I'm starting with the most famous player on this list for a few reasons. First: he is the most expensive player I will profile here. Second: he's also the most well-known, which rankles me slightly. Third: he has no set home within this Arsenal lineup. What he does have in his favor, though, is a heaping portion of talent.
Since the departure of Manchester United star "Bruno Fernanj" in 2019-20, Gonçalves has been the creative force behind Sporting's rapid rise to the top. Displacing the perennial championship pair of SL Benfica and FC Porto last season, Gonçalves made serious waves in his home nation.
Signed from newly-promoted, shock sixth-place finishers Famalicão in order to allay the loss of Fernandes, he did just that, scoring 23 goals and assisting a further three. With four strikes already to his name this season, he looks to be continuing that form, as he continues to grow into his abilities.
Originally a Wolves youth prospect, the player known simply as "Pote" managed a mere 20 minutes for the Molineux men in his season there, before earning a £1.7m move back to his home nation. Within two seasons, he was back in the upper echelons, and is not primed for a move away. Despite that, his only major link in the past twelve months has been to Liverpool, as another asset in the Firmino-Jota rotation, but those links have all but vanished.
Pros of Signing Gonçalves
Versatility is the name of his game. Capable of playing anywhere across a front four, his best position is somewhat of a hybrid false-9, very similar to the role currently played by Alexandre Lacazette at Arsenal.
Due to the lack of statistical data on the Primeira Liga generally, it's hard to build a numerical profile, but I certainly will do my best. The first thing to note about Gonçalves is his ability to score goals from the midfield. As I've mentioned, he can play everywhere on the front four, and has grown used to the task of being the sole creator within an otherwise rather utilitarian side. And wherever he plays, he just scores, something this Arsenal midfield or forward line could use much more of.
23 league goals—and the Primeira Golden Boot—is nothing to sniff at, of course, but his shot-on-target percentage, 49.4%, is unbelievably impressive, and he scores over half of the shots he places on target, with a conversion rate of 0.54%, which ranks around the 90th percentile for all European midfielders, and at the 99th percentile for wingers and attacking midfielders. He also has a penchant for shooting from range, again drawing comparisons with Fernandes.
He's quick off the mark, technically secure if not particularly brilliant, and generally retains the ball very well. He thrives as the lynchpin of an incredibly fluid Sporting attack, and specializes in layoffs and spinning his marker, two traits that have become particularly key to the midfield combinations of Mikel Arteta's Arsenal in recent months. Most notable of all, Gonçalves is indicative of a trend in modern football—he's a dynamic attacker who is tactically brilliant rather than technically, and who can use a system to his advantage, rather than relying on raw football talent.
Defensively, he brings all of the high-pressing traits our manager could want, averaging 1.21 interceptions per 90 this season, and getting fouled 1.06 times per 90 indicates how much of a pest he is to play aganist.
Overall, the 23-year-old is the ideal profile for a versatile, must-start attacker. I would suggest that given the dominance of young, talented right-wingers at the club, his best role might be off the left, or through the center at the No. 10, or as a false-9. Effectively, I see him as an ideal replacement for Alexandre Lacazette, as signing another midfield presence with goals in his game would allow for our young strikers to really step to the fore.
Cons of Signing Gonçalves
Price. Most players with a high release clause will not be sold for less than that release clause, as we've seen through transfer ordeals like the Thomas Partey saga. He might be worth the price, but Arsenal don't have the funds available to outlay that much money on a single player at the moment.
My other small grouse is the fact that he is best deployed as a right-winger. Not only would he be moving to a club on the rise in the most difficult league in the world, and into a squad that barely speaks his language—thank goodness for our Brazilian contingent—he would be immediately expected to make results while playing out of his comfort zone. Not exactly a recipe for "Instant Success, Just Add Water!"
Overall, he's a seriously skillful player, and one to whom you should devote your attention every time Sporting play in the UCL—he's already scored 2 goals there this season—but he may not be a perfect fit for this squad, despite his obvious talent.
4. Brenden Aaronson - RB Salzburg
Estimated Price: £10-18m
Reported Release Clause: N/A
Ideal Position: No. 10/Left Winger
From the most expensive to the cheapest, and arguably the least prevalent of the five players on this list, Brenden Aaronson represents the opposite end of the spectrum to Gonçalves in terms of publicity, but is quite similar in profile.
Originally a graduate of the Philadelphia Union academy in the MLS, New Jersey-born Aaronson played for the Mid-Atlantic outfit until last year, when compatriot Jesse Marsch shelled out around £4.9 million to bring him to RB Salzburg, where he still plays. Though Marsch has elevated himself to the RB Leipzig job since, Aaronson's place in the squad has never been more assured.
I'll be honest, most of my original interest in Aaronson came from the fact that he was American, and born a mere 65 days after me, which is the type of fact that never fails to shock me. However, once I started watching him specifically on the occasions I could catch RB Salzburg games, it became clear why I might want to dedicate a bit more interest to his story.
Five goals and five assists last season may not seem like a world-beating tally, until you realize that he scored them over half a season in Austria. Combine them with a further four goals and four assists during the opening months of the season in Philadelphia and you have an 18-goal-contribution player, with a deliciously symmetrical profile, which my crumb of OCD appreciates very much.
His rise to the forefront of Salzburg's ranks has gone nearly unnoticed in the media, with no major links abounding since he signed for the Austrian Bundesliga's perennial champions a season ago. He would be a very easy acquisition, assuming RB Leipzig don't have immediate designs on promoting their starlet.
Pros of Signing Aaronson
As likely to score as he is to provide, Aaronson matches absurd stamina and lighting quick reactions with instinctive technical quality and a dream of a first touch. He's one of the tidiest passers in Europe, completing over 90% of his short passes per 90 minutes, a 93rd percentile statistic.
The American also plays 0.38 passes out of bounds, 0.75 intercepted passes, and 0.75 blocked passes per 90, statistics which rank at the 87th, 96th, and 99th percentile for wingers and attacking midfielders. He also averages 0.38 through balls per 90 minutes, a rate most Manchester City attackers would dream of. That statistic, too, ranks high, at the 97th percentile.
Augmenting that is his penchant for tidy shooting when he has the chance— 50% of his shots hit the target (97th percentile)—and creating chances for his teammates when he might not have an opening, with 0.38 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes to his name as well.
But without a doubt, his best attribute is his energy and pressing. Though his tender age of 21
helps his cause, there are very few players in Europe who could hope of putting up the numbers Aaronson does with regularity. I won't cite them all here, hence why I've dropped them to the right for your reading convenience, but it's startling the consistency he achieves. His 2.44 fouls drawn per 90 minutes complete the picture, and highlight the absurd level of intensity he brings to every match.
And of course, it's nearly impossible to escape his price. With no release clause and a seriously cheap market value, purchasing Aaronson wouldn't cause Arteta to scrape the bottom of his war chest by any stretch of the imagination. And for a player of his quality, it's a steal.
Cons of Signing Aaronson
Of course, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. His high-level completion metrics aside, there is very little telling statistical data on Aaronson's performance and play-style. He's a relatively unproven player with one total year of European football under his belt, and as such is not the sort of generational talent ready-made for high-level European competition like he would find at Arsenal.
Just as Gonçalves is a fully-developed player, Aaronson is of a similar profile to the summer signings of Tavares and Lokonga. His undoubted, raw talent is clear for all to see, but it would take some measure of risk for any elite club to take a punt on him right now. He is one of the potential solutions on this list who I would not consider to be "ready-made," and it's not a stretch to say he's the player furthest from first-team quality I'll name.
With Smith Rowe breaking into the team as a hybrid No. 10 and left winger, signing a player built in the same mold with less Premier League quality could be seen as an unnecessary risk, or an over-saturation of one position within the roster. While I do believe he could pan out as a genuine superstar in the future, giving him another season to pan out in Austria could be an excellent first step.
3. Lukas Nmecha - Wolfsburg
Estimated Price: £15-23m
Reported Release Clause: N/A
Ideal Position: Inside Forward
A graduate of the Manchester City academy, 22-year-old Lukas Nmecha came up through the ranks at City around the same time as Phil Foden, a difficult prospect to overcome due to their similar positions on the pitch. Though Nmecha prefers to play on the right flank, and prefers the use of the other dominant foot, he was sent on a series of progressively more profitable loans throughout his time with the Manchester City first team.
First sent to Preston North End in 2018, then Middlesborough in the first half of 2019, he scored three goals and assisted five at the former, and went without a goal contribution at the latter. His lack of form in England opened opportunities to play abroad instead, and though his loan spell at Wolfsburg in the latter half of 2019 was similarly unprofitable, Anderlecht took a punt on him in 2020, and it payed dividends.
14 goals and three assists for the Belgian giants earned him his first European breakout, and convinced Wolfsburg to take a second bite of the cherry; they signed him on a permanent basis from Manchester City along with his younger brother Felix over the summer. Manchester City do have a buyback option on his contract, but look increasingly unlikely to use it.
It's also useful to note his campaigns for the German U-21 squad this summer. Along with Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz and Aaronson's Salzburg teammate Karim Adeyemi, Nmecha used his speed, quick feet, and tendency towards direct running and flair to spearhead a beautifully flowing attacking setup, leading them to the U-21 Euro title.
He has 10 goals to his name for his home nation over 17 caps, and has a rubber-stamped passport into the first team if he continues his current Bundesliga form. With four goals thus far in the season, and another two in the Champions League, the Hamburg-born forward has drawn links to other German sides of late, with RB Leipzig reportedly leading the race.
Pros of Signing Nmecha
Nmecha might be our best opportunity at redeeming ourselves from the Serge Gnabry fiasco. A young, pacy German winger, talented at operating across a front line, but who would be best used just inside of a central striker, as he's demonstrated playing in Florian Kohlfeldt's free-flowing Wolfsburg side, and for country.
Statistically, he's been a monster this season. He's at least 89th percentile for European forwards in every category—his lowest is goals per shot-on-target, at 0.46 per 90 minutes—and he's 99th percentile in non-penalty xG (0.55 per 90 minutes), non-penalty xG per shot (0.18 per 90), and non-penalty xG+xA (0.75 per 90).
To call his performance world-beating is a serious understatement, and he doesn't use the additional boost of penalties to ratchet up his numbers. That type of clinical and consistent finishing could prove exceedingly useful for Arsenal.
And in what's becoming a common theme thus far in this list, he's an unbelievable presser of the ball. Earning 21.02 pressures per 90 minutes, he tallies 10.23 in the midfield, and 7.61 in the attacking third, demonstrating his desire to press high often, a trait which would prove very useful for an Arsenal team that has shown some early mettle in that area.
The final aspect of his game that I think could be a boon to this Arsenal side is his dribbling ability. In Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal finally have a dribbler who can progress the ball with security and consistency, but Nmecha blows him out of the water. 0.46 shot-creating actions from the dribble per 90 minutes, combined with a completion percentage of 66.7% (96th percentile), showcase the underlying statistics of one of Europe's most talented dribblers. Combine that with his 0.34 through balls per match, and his ability to work between the lines is augmented further, adding another threat to his multifaceted style of play.
It's well-documented that Arsenal will be looking for a high-profile forward in upcoming windows, and though Nmecha doesn't check every box available, he is a very appealing and const-effective option if Arteta and Edu look to invest elsewhere in the squad as well.
Cons of Signing Nmecha
Out of the five players on this list, he's the least likely to sign for Arsenal, mostly because of his ties to Manchester City. If Arsenal's hypothetical interest in the German dynamo were to be publicly announced, I'd bet dollars to donuts that City would make it exceedingly difficult for any direct rival to sign their player.
Furthermore, he is a right-winger first and foremost, and though he has loads of experience on both the left wing and at striker, the right is his most comfortable position. I am unwilling to displace Saka from that spot, if I'm honest, and would love to see Nmecha in a front two alongside Aubameyang, similar to his current role behind Wout Weghorst, but it could potentially be a tricky transition.
The biggest concern I have is his passing. Standalone among all of his positive attributes, his distribution is inconsistent at best, and shoddy in high-pressure situations. He's reliable between 5 and 10 yards, but beyond that he struggles to find teammates with consistency. Wolfsburg do a good job of limiting his touches in forward areas to those with a direct chance of creating a goal, but he is easily caught out by clever defending of passing lanes, a problem which would be greatly exacerbated by the rigidity and tactical nous of the Premier League.
My final area of potential worry is in the number of goal-creating actions he participates in, which is next to none. He's excellent at creating goals for himself with incisive movement and powerful finishing, but less so at doing so for teammates, which isn't an issue if he is used at an advance forward role—and does actually suggest his propensity to score rather than waste chances—but still raises some question marks.
2. Charles de Ketelaere - Club Brugge
Estimated Price: £23-30m
Reported Release Clause: N/A
Ideal Position: Second striker/No. 10
This kid is the future. Just as Dominik Szbooszlai was two years ago, Charles de Ketelaere is the name on the lips of those who love to say they know football. A lifelong member of Club Brugge, first though the academy, then the second team, and making his first-team debut at the tender age of 18, the Belgian wonderkid has truly stepped into his own this season.
Tall, rangy, and standing at a lanky 6'1" tall, de Ketelaere rejects the classic target-man role that would be expected of a player of his stature, instead using his unbelievable positional IQ to play between the lines and create chances for teammates. A virtual Swiss army knife of a footballer, he has already featured at centre-forward, No. 10, on both wings, at central midfield, and at left back for Club Brugge over the past two seasons. But it is at centre-forward that he has made a name for himself.
Five goals and three assists in the Jupiler Pro League, with another assist coming in Champions League play, have cemented his role in the Belgian side. He has stepped into the absence of Emmanuel Dennis with aplomb and confidence belying his now 20 years of age. He is so confident that he has begun to mold the side's tactics to his own play style; though he may be cast as a striker on the pitch, he rarely stays that way.
The Bruges-born man has drawn comparisons to Kevin De Bruyne in the past, due to his heritage, technical quality, and generally unplayable nature—he, like his older compatriot, tends to fundamentally change the nature of any match in which he plays. However, I'd argue that there isn't any player truly like de Ketelaere, which speaks to his potential more than any other accolade I could award him.
He also wears No. 90, and I'm always a sucker for a unique number.
Pros of signing de Ketelaere
My first impression of de Ketelaere's statistical profile was that he's not a particularly well-rounded player. Due to a lack of data on the Jupiler Pro League, that's understandable, but that thought was erased from my head as soon as I scrolled below his "standard" and "shooting" statistics.
For the purpose of not overloading your optic nerves, I'm going to share a nice handy-dandy slideshow of the field of green that encompasses the underlying metrics behind his UCL play this season.
In essence, the man doesn't miss. There are a few red areas in his total play package, especially with his turnover rate—recognize, though, that he is playing for a smaller side in the UCL, and therefore most of his passes are either high-skill or high-risk by nature, and therefore less likely to come off, which makes his consistency all the more impressive. His ability to slice through backlines with his wand of a left foot (why do we never describe right feet that way?) is simply unbelievable.
It's also notable that though his goals dominate the conversation in relation to his performances in Belgium, it's his shooting numbers that are the lowest in the Champions League. I would suggest, then, that many of his goals come because of his incisive movement and high IQ. And speaking of that football IQ.
One of the dominant traits of the great players of history is that they always seem to be in the right place. You didn't see them get there, they simply have the instinct and the vision to pop up where it matters. de Ketelaere has that skill, and it's magnificent to watch. There's also a more modern theory about head checks—how many times a player looks around to gauge their position in relation to the opposition and their teammates, and the extent to which they are able to change the game because of this knowledge once they receive the ball.
It's this skill that allows them to see the passes that we could never, even when watching from an elevated camera through a television screen. Watch de Ketelaere's head next week, when the Champions League is back on, and you'll see this skill in action nearly every second he is off the ball. The 20-year-old is constantly judging his own positioning and ability to influence a game and moving to improve it and provide chances for his teammates. It's simply stunning.
And continuing the theme of off-ball workrate, de Ketelaere has it in spades. He has a mighty defensive workrate, tackling, pressing, and harrying throughout the pitch, and generally making a nuisance of himself. He's a nuisance on the ball too, and is incredibly adept at drawing fouls, and crucially, penalties.
In a similar vein to Gonçalves, de Ketelaere would be a perfect augment to the team wherever he played, but I specifically see him playing on the shoulder of a defense, either as a lone centre-forward in a Jurgen Klopp-esque false-9, or with a pair in the current system employed by Arsenal, though he could also function brilliantly as a No. 10, in rotation with Smith Rowe and Ødegaard.
Cons of signing de Ketelaere
There are very few cons to this signing, just difficulties. He is only 20 years old, and might demand comparatively higher fees to even my estimates—his market value is around £22m, per Transfermarkt, but that is a conservative estimate of the price he would sell for.
Honestly, the only downside is that this current Arsenal squad is working very well as a single cohesive unit, with no superstar personalities or individualistic players. They're working for one another, and it's wonderful to watch. Though de Ketelaere is, by all reports, a lovely young man, there are very few players of his quality who do not believe they are fantastic players. It's a difficult line to draw between self-assertion and ego, and there simply is no room for ego in Mikel Arteta's Arsenal, by admission of the boss himself.
I'm grasping for straws here. Sign the kid up.
1. Amadou Haidara - RB Leipzig
Estimated Price: £22-27m
Reported Release Clause: N/A
Ideal Position: Central Midfield
You might wonder, after I just spent far too many words gushing about de Ketelaere, why he wasn't the big numero uno on my list. Well, that's because, as wonderful as he is, we have cover in his position. Could we use his quality? Yes. Might he be generational? Yes. But we don't need him immediately.
The same cannot be said for Amadou Haidara. Once a member of RB Salzburg, he made the step up to the senior Red Bull team in January of 2019, for a decent fee of around £17m. Since then, he's built his was into the squad slowly, and with the departure of Marcel Sabitzer for Bayern Munich, has cemented his place almost permanently in long-time manager Jesse Marsch's books, with whom he was reunited as Julian Nagelsmann also made the move to Bayern.
Haidara profiles quite similarly to Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, who made the same Salzburg-to-Leipzig transition a few years before the Malian, who was effectively brought in to replace him. But though Keita is a fine player in his own regard, Haidara has the potential to do truly special things. And Arsenal, it must be said, are in desperate need of a central player to complete their midfield.
In the same way that de Ketelaere is versatile leading the line, Haidara features nearly everywhere for the German challengers. Most often used as a No. 8, he can play holding midfield alone or in a pivot, as a lone attacker or in a pair, typically with longtime Arsenal target Christopher Nkunku as his partner, and possesses the top-end speed to play out wide in the midfield should the occaison arise. While this flexibility is notable because of his athleticism, it should also be noted that he has the tactical nous to fill each of these roles with distinction as well.
In order to free space for Lokonga to develop properly, and provide a third rotation option in the midfield pair of Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka, who cannot play every match together. As evidenced by this season, where injuries have split up the dream duo, we need another talented body to augment the centre of our team. Haidara, who has received very little external interest this season, could certainly be that man.
Pros of signing Haidara
Unlike de Ketelaere, who falls into the category of "too good to be true" when you look at his player profile, Haidara is the dictionary definition of well rounded in a more human, realistic context. He plays for a title-challenging side, in a much more difficult league, and regularly comes out in the green, which is a serious endorsement of his talents.
0.15 non-penalty xG (92nd percentile for midfielders) and 0.1 xA per 90 minutes reflect that profile, as do the 1.66 shots he plays per match, with just over a third of those coming on target, showing his eye for goal from deeper-lying positions. And when he's not shooting around the box, he's finding a teammate, with 1.39 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes, and 5.7 progressive passes per 90 as well.
That's not to say he can't create from deeper positions either. With 0.18 through balls per 90 (81st percentile) and a whopping 11.59 passes under pressure (97th percentile), Haidara is an expert at releasing the ball to teammates in tricky situations, an invaluable skill in the Premier League. He also averages an unbelievably high amount of shot-creating actions, totaling 2.87 per 90, 2.46 of which come from live passes, indicating his skill at finding players between the lines in good positions.
Unsurprisingly, his pressing numbers are slightly lower, as he's rarely expected to lead it, but he does manage 2.5 tackles per 90 minutes, 0.43 of which come in the attacking third, indicating a tendency to press high for a midfielder, a trait which would suit him well in Arsenal's current setup. He also manages 2.22 blocks per 90 minutes, and 1.97 blocked passes as well, which highlights the defensive aspect of his excellent positional sense.
Most useful to the Gunners is his ability to dribble through t helines, as he averages a high volume of progressive carries and carries into the penalty area per 90, with a decently high completion rate. Standing a mere 5'8," he tends to use his slight stature and driving power to scamper past opponents; if you watch him in the UCL, you'll find he's one of those players who uses his balance and centre of gravity to shift the ball quickly between his feet, always questing for an opening to drive into and find a teammate.
He can play either side of a midfield duo, and would be a complementary partner for either Partey or Xhaka, but his presence would better allow us to transition to an effective 4-3-3 formation, as his box-to-box capabilities epitomize the modern No. 8. And in a Leipzig squad overflowing with talent, his price wouldn't be awful either, though they do value him highly. Most importantly, he would give us the necessary depth to develop our younger prospects, and though Haidara himself is only 23, he's ready for the next big move.
Cons of buying Haidara
Zero risk, high reward. If we can get him, I would argue that we must. Leipzig don't like selling, but that's their problem.
And that's a wrap! Thank you all so much for reading (if you've gotten this far, I'm honestly impressed); if you enjoyed it, and would like to share it or spread some love, please do! Let me know if you agree, disagree, or any other players you'd like to see me write about! Until next week, signing off.