Reportedly restricted to a transfer budget of £45m thanks to the financial implications of another season in Europe’s second tier, taking a battering against Chelsea in the Europa League final in Baku cost them more than just London bragging rights, self-esteem and popular cachet. Their limited resources pose a serious problem for Unai Emery, given that his squad is in need of a comprehensive rebuild.
Torn to shreds by Eden Hazard in Baku, Arsenal’s defence needs the most urgent attention. Shaky even during Emery’s 22-match unbeaten run last autumn – their fundamental flaws not helped by his constant switching between a back four and a back three – his back line gradually descended into chaos towards the end of the season. Were they judged on their ‘goals against’ column alone, Arsenal would have come ninth in the Premier League.
With the underwhelming Stephan Lichtsteiner already departed and a couple more defenders looking likely to leave, Emery has taken his tentative first steps towards an overhaul at the back. Given that £45m doesn’t go far in the transfer market these days, he and Head of Football Raul Sanllehi will have to make shrewd use of available funds.
So who have Arsenal been linked with? And who would be the best value for money? Here’s the lowdown on their defensive options in the transfer market.
Where do Arsenal need reinforcements?
If there’s something for Arsenal fans to look forward to next season, it’s the return of Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin. Having suffered anterior cruciate ligament ruptures in December and January respectively, they should hopefully be back in action sometime around the start of the new campaign.
Holding grew into himself at centre-back last season and was instrumental in Arsenal’s 22-match unbeaten run, while Bellerin is still by far their most dynamic option at right-back. Without wanting to set off the ‘like a new signing’ klaxon, they should serve as welcome reinforcements in themselves.
Centre-back is the biggest problem position for Arsenal, with Shkodran Mustafi in dire need of replacement and Laurent Koscielny heading into his mid-thirties and incrementally diminished by injuries. Koscielny has also been linked with a move back to France with Lyon, which might make personal and professional sense at this stage of his career.
With Lichtsteiner departing, Carl Jenkinson likely to follow him and Ainsley Maitland-Niles an inconsistent back-up, Arsenal need to shore up the right side of defence but, given Bellerin’s return, preferably not at an enormous cost. While, on paper, they are relatively well stocked at left-back, it seems that Emery wants to strengthen there as well. That’s a full house, then.
Who have they been linked with?
It was always an imperfect fit, but Arsenal were initially linked with Thomas Meunier at right-back. Emery worked with him at Paris Saint-Germain and, according to Get French Football News, he was seen as a potential dressing room ally after a season in which Emery has apparently struggled with player power (mainly in the form of a Fortnite-addicted Mesut Ozil).
Given his profile, Meunier would be a direct rival to Bellerin and, given that Bellerin is one of Arsenal’s better defenders, that would be an odd way to strengthen a defence that has so many other areas which need attention. Then there’s PSG’s reported valuation of upwards of £25m, a sum which would eat up most of Arsenal’s transfer budget.
Another option would be the signing of William Saliba, the 18-year-old Saint-Etienne man who, while predominantly a centre-back, can also cover out on the right flank. He is also valued at around £25m, however, and Les Verts reportedly want him back on loan, which isn’t much use to Emery given how badly he needs new defenders.
Arsenal have also been linked with a classic ‘double swoop’ for Samuel Umtiti and Presnel Kimpembe, from Barcelona and PSG respectively. Though Emery would surely love to swoop like a majestic Brylcreemed eagle on centre-backs of their quality, Umtiti would cost a reported £45m – that is, the entirety of Arsenal’s transfer budget – while Kimpembe would no doubt also be expensive.
Armando Izzo is another potential signing at centre-back, though the Torino defender would be perhaps the strangest choice of all. He was banned for 18 months for a Serie B match-fixing scandal in 2017, later reduced to six months on appeal. That makes him seem, well, a little risky.
The most credible Arsenal transfer link so far has been to Kieran Tierney. On Saturday, BBC journalist David Ornstein tweeted: “Arsenal have had an opening bid of £15m for Celtic left-back Kieran Tierney rejected – but there is optimism an agreement will be reached between the clubs, while personal terms for the 22-year-old Scotland international shouldn’t be a problem.”
Who should they sell?
In Tierney’s favour is the feeling that he should be fairly affordable, with the record transfer fee received by a Scottish club the £19.7m which Celtic earned from Moussa Dembele’s transfer to Lyon last summer. While Arsenal may well have to break that record to sign Tierney, they should still be left with a reasonable amount to spend elsewhere.
Tierney is a fan favourite at Celtic and has been at the heart of their historic ‘treble treble’, though he may take some time to adapt to life in the Premier League. Regardless, his arrival would most likely lead to the departure of one of Nacho Monreal or Sead Kolasinac.
Kolasinac is seven years younger than Monreal at 26 and 33 years of age respectively, which may make him less amenable to a back-up role. Arsenal would also receive a more substantial fee for the former Schalke man, which they could use to supplement to their transfer budget. On balance, Monreal is probably still the more consistent performer despite his age.
Though he has attracted interest from West Brom, Carl Jenkinson has been touted as a potential makeweight in the Tierney deal. Sad as it would be to see the ultimate Arsenal fanboy depart the club, he could do with a fresh start and couldn’t ask for a better destination than Celtic. The same could be said for Calum Chambers, who now has two relegations on his CV from loans with Middlesbrough and Fulham.
Finally, while they are highly unlikely to recoup the fee in excess of £35m they paid to sign him from Valencia, Arsenal need to move on Shkodran Mustafi as a priority. He has been the defensive equivalent of a groaning, slow-motion zeppelin crash for the last couple of seasons. Whatever Arsenal can get for him, they are better off with cash which might help to finance an ambitious bid for Saliba, Umtiti or Kimpembe.
Who could they promote?
On loan at Charlton Athletic last season, Krystian Bielik deserves a chance at Arsenal. Man of the match in the League One play-off final and one of their standout performers all season, assistant manager Johnnie Jackson told i back in May: “He’s been excellent for us, he really has. I look at Arsenal’s defensive troubles and to me, I think he could definitely have a future there.”
Though Bielik has often played in defensive midfield, Jackson said that centre-back was his “natural position”. He could be joined there by Zech Medley, another highly rated academy prospect who could do with greater first-team exposure. Even if they start out in back-up roles, they could help to refresh a defence which most would agree has entered a state of chronic stagnation.
What would represent good business for Arsenal?
Were they able to supplement their budget by moving on Kolasinac, Jenkinson, Chambers and Mustafi, Arsenal would do well to get Tierney and one of their preferred options at centre-back.
With promoted players filling the gaps, that would represent a decent start. Then again, this is Arsenal, and nothing is ever that simple.