Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Transfer Deadline Day: Arsenal sign Jorginho from Chelsea; do Gunners have the depth to win Premier League?

Do Arsenal have enough? It is the question hanging over supporters, rivals and the club hierarchy as they enter the final months of their remarkable season. In August, nobody seriously imagined that this team would be the Premier League frontrunners in the second half of the race, and yet that is where they find themselves, five points clear of Manchester City with 19 games left to play while the reigning champions have 18.

Arsenal, who have concluded their incoming business with the £12 million signing of Jorginho on deadline day, could get everything right and just fall short. They still have to face City twice; Pep Guardiola’s side could wipe that lead away with the sort of imperious run that they have so often delivered in the second half of the season. No one will need to remind former City assistant Mikel Arteta of that fact.

And yet, this is a club that understands where they find themselves in and perhaps how hard it will be to get back there. Even for a squad with all the growth potential of the Premier League’s youngest, there is no guarantee that future years will see the rest of the chasing pack drop off so early nor that City will not raise the levels beyond Arsenal in the years to come.

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At the start of January, Arsenal wanted to secure a top-tier young winger and, if possible, a left-sided center back. They knew that the price of their top target, Mykhailo Mudryk, had burgeoned to such a level that he alone would require sizable investment. Another body in central midfield would have been nice to have, but there were many around the club who expected to keep their powder dry for the summer when they still intend to sign Declan Rice, a player who CBS Sports revealed earlier this month was enamored by the prospect of moving from West Ham to Arsenal.

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When Chelsea snared Mudryk from them at the 11th hour, Arsenal found themselves with more cash to play with but not enough that they could pry Moises Caicedo away from Brighton. The Seagulls made clear after rejecting two bids that the Ecuadorian was not for sale this winter and never indicated a price to the Gunners that would change that stance. Sources have told CBS Sports that Arsenal were mindful of not damaging relations with Brighton, with whom they have done much business in the past and could well be in dialogue in the summer over Caicedo, by pushing the issue when their stance was made clear.

Instead of a youthful injection, Arsenal have pivoted to make the sort of moves that a title contender makes. Set aside young center back Jakub Kiwior and the two additions they have brought in are a 28-year-old forward in Leandro Trossard and Jorginho, the 31-year-old Champions League winner from Chelsea. In both case, Arsenal are extremely unlikely to recoup their transfer fee, and toward the end of their contracts, both players may well not be playing at a level that befits their salary. But if Trossard delivers a handful of effective cameos and Jorginho eases the burden on Thomas Partey this season, then their combined £38 million fees will be a price worth paying.

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Neither of these two additions can be certain to be starters, but what they do add is Premier League experience to the club’s depth chart, which is examined in detail below. First of all, it is worth clarifying exactly how Arsenal line up and where they need players. Arteta’s side line up in what is in simplistic terms a standard 4-3-3. When attacking, this tends to morph into a 2-3-5 with the full backs inverting into central midfield (though Ben White has shown overlapping tendencies, particularly when Eddie Nketiah is the main striker) and the two midfielders — often termed eights — ahead of Partey given license to attack the penalty area.

average-positions-2.png

Arsenal’s average positions in Premier League games Twenty3

Early in this season, their first XI was humming and had reached the level that is so often a sign of champions. From front to back, you could reel off their starting lineup without much consideration. Gabriel Jesus’ knee injury has somewhat changed that, but Eddie Nketiah has stepped into the void in exceptional fashion, turning the absence of the Premier League’s most transformative signing of last summer into a non-event. The Brazilian is expected to return in March from surgery, but Arteta can feel confident he has the quality up front to keep this charge going.

In wide areas, Trossard’s addition gives Arsenal plenty of options on the left, but the Belgian is sufficiently versatile that he could end up logging minutes in other spots. Right wing would be the obvious one. Bukayo Saka has shown remarkable durability over his early career, but the Gunners would be well advised not to test that in the Europa League. Similarly, on the left side of defense, Gabriel has featured in some capacity during all but one of Arsenal’s games this season (he has not missed a Premier League start since September 2021), Kiwior should allow him to at least rest up in the Europa League.

Arsenal’s depth chart

Goalkeeper

Aaron Ramsdale

Matt Turner

Karl Hein

Right back

Ben White

Takehiro Tomiyasu

Right center back

William Saliba

Rob Holding

Ben White

Left center back

Gabriel

Jakub Kiwior

Left back

Oleksandr Zinchenko

Kieran Tierney

Takehiro Tomiyasu

Defensive midfield

Thomas Partey

Jorginho

Right central midfield

Martin Odegaard

Fabio Vieira

Left central midfield

Granit Xhaka

Emile Smith Rowe

Right wing

Bukayo Saka

Leandro Trossard

Reiss Nelson

Left wing

Gabriel Martinelli

Leandro Trossard

Emile Smith Rowe

Center forward

Gabriel Jesus

Eddie Nketiah

Leandro Trossard

Meanwhile, the logic behind Arsenal’s push to sign a central midfielder became apparent when Mikel Arteta confirmed that Mohamed Elneny, Partey’s previous backup, had suffered a major injury. No timescale was put on his recovery, but he is expected to miss most, if not all, of the remainder of the season. Jorginho may well prove to be a better fit at dictating play from deep than the Egyptian, he lacks the burst of pace of Partey to break the press as easily with ball carrying but there are few more experienced at building attacks from the base of midfield.

There are areas where the drop-off is more pronounced. USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner has shown solidity as a shot-stopper and growth with the ball at his feet, but the drop-off in Arsenal’s possession play would be pronounced if he had to step in for Aaron Ramsdale over a run of games. Most pressing of all is central midfield, where Albert Sambi Lokonga left on deadline day for Crystal Palace on a loan with no option to buy. An option both deeper and as one of the two eights, the young Belgian has rather lost Arteta’s trust after a bright start to his career when he joined from Anderlecht last season. He may well have served as little more than a reminder that depth is only useful if a manager intends to use it.

Arsenal’s two starting central midfielders, Xhaka and Odegaard, are iron men; since Feb. 10, 2022, they have started every Premier League game together bar one, a 3-0 win over Brentford. That was the one top-flight match so far this season where summer signing Fabio Vieira has really sparkled, the 22-year-old would now appear to be the obvious next man up. Behind him, there is not an obvious backup, though one matter of note is Arteta’s plans for Emile Smith Rowe. Before injury disrupted his preseason last summer, sources close to the player and Arsenal have indicated that he would have been blooded as an eight.

It would be a far from optimal situation if Arteta had to test him in that position again during a title run in. If Xhaka or Odegaard fell to a lengthy injury, then that could cost Arsenal the points that make all the difference in the race. However, the same could be just as true at City if Rodri, Erling Haaland or Kevin De Bruyne went down. The reality is that few teams end up Premier League champions because they managed to ride an injury wave effectively. With Virgil van Dijk in the side, Liverpool have historically looked like title winners. Take him and a few other cogs out of the side and the drop-off can be alarming. The same is true of Tottenham and Harry Kane, Chelsea and Reece James. No team is without its foundational pieces.

Arsenal, then, look to have the options to rotate and to add punch off the bench. If their key starters can weather the storm over the next four months then they may just do the unimaginable. 

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