By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Arsenal are building a proper squad.
When Mikel Arteta stepped through the door at London Colney in December 2019, he inherited a mess. A set of players that were ageing, being paid far too much and had been assembled without any clear and coherent strategy. It's taken two and a half years, but Arteta and Edu finally appear to have turned this squad around. Clearing a few more players from the old regime is all that is left before this squad building 'project' is all but complete.
A recruitment strategy of acquiring young and versatile players, who crucially fit the system Arteta wants to implement, has set Arsenal in a position where they are good enough again to compete for a place in the Champions League. Of course, the long-term goal is much more than that, but making incremental steps towards these goals is the way to go about achieving them.
Edu spoke in depth of this squad building process in his big recent interview, which you can read here on The Athletic. Instead of diving into the long-process that it has been, which Edu does himself fantastically, I thought I'd take a look at the results of this process, and the position this squad is now in. This will be loosely based off a short piece by Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab on twitter) so go give him a follow if you don't already.
Scott focused very much on the idea of 1A and 1B players in his piece. This is supposedly a concept spoken about quite heavily in Baseball, a sport I have very, very minimal knowledge on. Essentially, a 1A squad member is a player that is absolutely guaranteed to start every game if they are even remotely fit, because the alternatives to them represent a considerable drop off in quality or force you to change the way you play tactically.
Last season, our squad was full of 1A players. Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Kieran Tierney, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka could all be considered as such. Take any of those players out, and you're likely to suffer somewhat, with the players coming in for them likely to not be at the same level. Although some of them may be able to 'do a job', you are most likely going to have to shift things tactically to accommodate for their lack of qualities or inability to replicate what your first choice in this position is able to do (even if just not quite as well).
With nine players in your best eleven being 1A players, you are likely to struggle at various points in the season, with injuries inevitable. This summer, Arsenal have added to their squad to now reduce the number of 1A players and make many 1B Players. Scott describes 1B players as someone that "isn't a guaranteed first name on the team sheet player but they are a player that if they start they bring something to the team and maybe in some situations are a preferred solution".
The perfect example of where Arsenal have added 1B squad depth is in defence. With the additions of Oleksandr Zinchenko and William Saliba, we now have six defenders who we could trust to play against almost every opposition and in certain games would be considered the preferred solution over last season's definitive back four.
Last campaign, if any one of Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel or Tierney was missing, we were forced to bring in either Rob Holding, Nuno Tavares or Cedric Soares. While Holding hinders the way in which we build play from the back and progress the ball up the field, introducing either Tavares or Cedric had an adverse effect on the way the opposing full-back had to play, with the dynamic between our first choice two so tactically unique and requiring certain skills which our second choice couldn't replicate.
Now, with our six trusted defenders, we can slot them in and out of the side rather seamlessly. While Zinchenko and Tierney may be very different players, they both bring huge qualities to their roles, and in certain games, one may be the better option than the other. In games where we're likely to dominate the ball, Zinchenko's passing and technical quality would be of more value, while Tierney may be better suited to facing sides that carry more threat and possess a direct, dribble-heavy winger.
The other three areas of the back four are pretty interchangeable amongst the other four players. White, Saliba or Tomiyasu can play at right-back, while all three and Gabriel can operate at the heart of the defence. The gap in quality when changing who is where is minimal and because it's only four players covering three positions, there are sufficient minutes to go around for players of that level who warrant a lot of minutes.
With these six 1B players, we will very rarely have to rely on our clearly second choice options to cover in Premier League matches. Tavares is likely to leave on loan, while Holding and Cedric are sufficient for early Europa League matches and Cup competitions.
You'd now look at our squad and argue only Aaron Ramsdale, Thomas Partey, Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka are our 1A players. It's unrealistic to believe we can build our entire squad to be 1B because no squad on planet earth functions like that. Even the best sides have single points of failure. Look at the effect of Virjil Van Dijk's injury on Liverpool's 2020/21 season. Imagine if Kevin De Bruyne missed eight months for City.
Despite still possessing five 1A players, you do feel we're in a better place to cope with their absences. Most of the time, you won't have to call upon your second choice goalkeeper, but even if we do, Matt Turner should possess the shot-stopping capabilities to at least come close to matching Ramsdale's ability in that department. A severe injury to our number one would undoubtedly hinder us, but you could say that about the majority of sides in the league, including the top ones. No particularly good keeper wants to be a number two, hence why you don't see many and hence why Bernd Leno is leaving us for Fulham.
In midfield, alongside Ramsdale, Partey represents our other most drastic point of failure. A lengthy Partey absence would be potentially very damaging to our season, although I'm not quite as concerned as some are about this potentiality. I'm not sure there are any feasible signings we could make in this current market who could fill the role that Partey does identically and close to his level. Thus, I think we'd have to adapt our system somewhat in his absence and we're better equipped to do that this season with the signing of Zinchenko.
Odegaard remains a 1A player, but his presence should not be as sorely missed next season if he's unavailable, due to the arrival of Fabio Vieira. The Portuguese international can do a lot of what Odegaard does in the same right-eight position, even if he isn't quite at the Norwegian's level. He also may offer a 1B option at the left-eight role, alongside the likes of Xhaka, Zinchenko and Sambi Lokonga.
Without Saka, we are definitely hindered, but less so than last season. Jesus has performed expertly on the right-side, as has Vieira. Again, they're not quite 1B options, but they're better than no back-up, which is what we had last season for Saka.
Jesus becoming our best player immediately automatically makes him a 1A player, but I feel pretty comfortable with Eddie Nketiah filling in, if Eddie's form at the end of last season is an accurate representation of his new level.
This squad is in a really, really good place. One or two more additions, and I'll be very optimistic about what we could achieve next season.