How Far Have Arsenal Come? (Nearly) On This Day: January 2018
Sometimes you have to look back to see how far you've come.
With Operation Rebuild in full swing and maybe a player or two coming in during the current transfer window, I felt it was a good time to look back on where we were at in squad terms a few years ago compared to now. So much has happened in the intervening period, both Arsenal & non-Arsenal related, but 2018 feels like a bit of a turning point in our recent history. Arsène was about to leave & the recruitment was taking a bit of a nose dive.
What better way to appreciate how far we've come under Mikel than to look back?
I picked a dismal game from January 2018 where we lost 3-1 away to Swansea.
Compare this to the Manchester City side taking on Alan Pardew's West Bromwich Albion and beating them the next day, 3-0 on the 31st January 2018; the difference in squad turnover is huge.
Save Aguero, Otamendi & David Silva who have all aged out, that's essentially still their starting XI.
Petr Čech v Aaron Ramsdale
At one time Čech was one of the top goalkeepers in the world - but that is not the keeper Arsenal signed.
He was a more of an old school goalkeeper. He could catch a cross, save a shot and was good in one on ones, although a lot of this ability had declined by the time he joined us. As a footballer though, he might be the worst goalkeeper I have ever seen with the ball at his feet; and I include Vito Mannone in that.
Ramsdale for me has been a huge upgrade here compared to that team. He is young, he is exciting, he has personality, he has made some world class saves and he can play football. I'm not saying throw Leno in goal and push him into midfield or anything, but his ability to play out from the back has transformed the way we can now attack teams.
Héctor Bellerín v Takehiro Tomyiasu
Bellerín (rightly so) holds a special place in the hearts of some fans. He broke onto the scene and looked so good, and his amazing accent and fashion sense only added to this. There is no doubt however that since his injury he has just not been the same player. He seemed to lose his ability to defend and lost some of that great pace he once had.
Tomiyasu is such a unique talent, he is strong, he can pass a ball and while he might not offer the same threat going forward that Héctor did in his early years he has made us much more solid at the back. We only need to look at the job he has done on some of the best wide players in the league already and to think of his experience and his young age scouting departments at other clubs and Sky pundits who didn’t see his potential should really be looking for new jobs...
Laurent Koscielny v Benjamin White
Our former captain left the club in bad circumstances. When he did play though (and through a lot of injuries), he was very good for us for several years and often chipped in with a goal or two as well. Today we have Benjamin White who is only in his first season so it is wait and see where he ends up, but right now, would I pick a fully fit and top of his game Koscielny over Benjamin White? I don’t think so.
We all knew White could play football and drive us forward with runs or with a long pass, but perhaps a nice surprise has been just how good he is at defending as well, especially recently turning in some displays that were more Tony Adams-like than anything I have seen in years. White speaks well and is definitely potential future captain material - again, perhaps another surprise.
Shkodran Mustafi v Gabriel Magalhães
I am struggling not to laugh writing this one out. What can I say about the World cup 'winner'? Well he makes me question if professional footballers actually go to training. I say this because the Under 14s I coach have better positional sense than he has and I can't remember a player ever having his body position so wrong on so many occasions.
How can someone train for hours a day, 4 or 5 times a week and not improve on the basics? It's like having a cook at a café working there 5 days a week, and after 7 years still can’t fry an egg. Gabriel is already a better player than Mustafi ever was, and he was cheaper as well. Gabriel is very dominant at the back. He is calm, he is strong and powerful, his passing is getting better, and I just don’t feel nervous when he plays. He is also very good at knowing when to come into midfield and nick a ball. Ramsdale has been huge, Tomiyasu has been great, White as well, but I think Gabriel is one of the best signings we have made in recent times.
Nacho Monreal v Kieran Tierney
The Spaniard was always solid for us. I think his debut was up against John Walters during his Stoke days... what a welcome to the Premier League! He also chipped in with some good goals and overall was quite solid for us. But Tierney is just as solid and provides just as much of an attacking outlet, if not more - at times last season he was basically our only attacking outlet. Tierney is the replacement we needed at left back and one thing he has over Monreal for me is his drive to win. Everything he does seems to be life and death. His desire to win and the way he drives the team on at times is just so fun to watch. He is a genuine leader in a team that now has quite a few young leaders.
In terms of the back four and the goalkeeper, then versus now... would I take any of them for our next game?
I really don’t think so.
Granit Xhaka v Granit Xhaka
Bit hard to compare him to himself and a lot has happened since 2018 for him... if anything he has become a bit more "Xhaka" these days. Has he really improved any part of his game significantly? Difficult to say.
I do think though, when he has Partey alongside him, we do see the best of him, and I think maybe 7/8 of his best performances for our club have come with Partey alongside him.
Mohamed Elneny v Thomas Partey
Elneny is still at the club, and he is basically solid at what he does. He plays simple passes, he adds a degree of calm but doesn’t do much to really improve us in anyway. I will say this though; he has some engine on him. I reckon he could run 5 marathons back-to-back and still play 90 minutes.
Partey has not always been at his best yet for Arsenal although we are seeing it more consistently recently and he is very good both ways. He can play a defence splitting pass but he also is extremely good at stopping dangerous breaks and getting himself back to defend as well when required. He offers us a lot more than Elneny does. He is more dynamic, and he is a presence we needed in the midfield. He does play better with Xhaka beside him, and no doubt if we can bring in another midfielder as an upgrade on Xhaka we will see just how good Partey can be.
Aaron Ramsey v Martin Ødegaard or Emile Smith Rowe
I know Ramsey played as part of a midfield 3 here, but if we now played the same formation they did then, or vice versa, I believe Ødegaard would have played the comparative role. I pick the Norwegian over Smith Rowe just because he is the one who has been playing recently but you could easily swap these two around.
Ramsey was great at times for Arsenal and in 2018 got 7 goals in the league - he was always a danger arriving into the box. This is perhaps a spot you could argue, if you wanted, that Ramsey was/is the better player, but I would disagree. I think both Ødegaard and Smith Rowe can score the goals Ramsey got for the team and I also think they offer so much more.
Ødegaard keeps the game ticking over - he has this incredible ability to control the pace of the game. I remember watching Stefan Effenberg play, and he had that same ability that if the game was going 100 miles an hour around him, he could just slow things down for a second or if things seemed slow he could just inject that pace into it. Ødegaard reminds me a lot of that. A tougher call than most but I do think we are better off with Ødegaard or Smith Rowe than with Ramsey.
Overall, in terms of the midfield, it is maybe not as much of an improvement as the back four. But for me we have made strides forward here as well even though more work still needs to be done.
Mesut Özil v Bukayo Saka
No one denied the raw talent Özil had/has, the good seasons he had for us and his end product. Everyone who has played with him at other clubs talks very highly of him and, like Koscielny the way he left was a bit sour for such a top player. The question though, is do I pick him over Saka?
I honestly don’t think I would. Saka keeps the ball better than Özil did, he tracks back and defends much more and while he may not have the same numbers in goals and assists to his name going forward the fact that opposition teams are now putting two and three and sometimes 7 players on him show just how dangerous they feel he is. Özil was a great player in the final third but was one of the worst when he had to track back and defend. Modern football requires you to be able to do both and Saka edges him out for me. That is not to say Saka is a better player than Ozil in his prime was - I do think he will be, but if I had to pick one of them it would be Bukayo. He gives more for the team than Özil ever did.
Alex Iwobi v Gabriel Martinelli
I mean, how someone hasn’t been arrested for the money we got for Iwobi is astonishing. Daylight robbery. I mean he looked good at times, he was direct, but I reckon my dog could hit a harder shot than some of his efforts. Like Mustafi, I refuse to believe someone who trains that much still can’t fire a shot above 5 miles per hour towards goal.
Martinelli has simply been sensational since he got into the side. I was chatting with a Liverpool fan the other day and he is the one player he would love to take from us above all the others. He gives everything for the team and has now added the end product as well. He is so good at football it is scary. He has already done more for the club I would say than Iwobi ever did. Imagine clubs trying to sign Adama Traore from Wolves knowing he is just a poor man's Martinelli. So sad.
Alexandre Lacazette v Alexandre Lacazette
Much like Xhaka, difficult to compare him to himself but I would say, even though his contract is coming to an end, he is playing the best football of his Arsenal career right now. He works so well with the younger players and really does seem to enjoy being the senior professional at the club. I take this year’s version over the 2018 version every day of the week.
Overall, our attacking 3 at the moment are a big upgrade on what we had in 2018. Looking at both teams it is fair to say that in four years we have come a long way. While work still needs to be done we are on the right road. Another midfielder and a top striker and our starting 11 would match anyone in the league. We might then need a few new squad players as well, but the foundations are certainly far stronger than they were in 2018.
Another improvement is the atmosphere, 2018 was peak 'Wenger Out' before he did leave that season and there was very little connection between players and fans. That for me has been as big a change as anything the club, the players and the fans are all pulling now in the same direction and that can only be a good thing going forward.
So, while it is frustrating to not have signed anyone yet, I hope this gives people a chance to think and reflect on how far we have come in a number of areas on and off the pitch in the past 4 years.
It is also safe to say, should the weekend game with Burnley go ahead, I cannot see this current side losing 3-1 much like the 2018 team did to a very average Swansea side. And if we can take anything from the last four years - it's the mentality of this team is much improved.
- Stephen Broekhuizen (@jsbroekhuizen)