The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.
Time to review the squad and what they achieved as individuals. Overall I could hardly be happier with them. 2018/19 was supposed to be a transitional season in which we were considered sixth favourites for the Premier League title, and yet we grew in strength as time progressed, with the defence particularly stout and some fine attacking play rewarded. I remember the great Arsenal sides put together by George Graham, based on defensive responsibility, and then the more cavalier Arsene Wenger years, and I like to hope we have achieved the best qualities of both era.
We will have to decide who to keep and who to lose, and this assessment of the players ought to offer some clues as to what will happen next. As an early spoiler, I can report that we have agreed a £10.5 million fee for Stoke’s Jack Butland already. I’d wanted Butland all along but ran out of money last summer. Armed with a fresh kitty of nearly ninety million at the end of April, I bid for the keeper early as Stoke looked like good candidates for promotion and wanted to get in there before they went up and the price escalated.
There’ll be more business over the course of the summer, but in the meantime here are my thought on the boys who were made to entertain you…
Bernd Leno (German, 27, 60 Appearances, 41 Clean sheets, 6.95 Rating)
Bernd played every minute of the season for us, an ever-present who started a colossal 60 games and was rather impressive throughout, ultimately winning the Premier League’s Goalkeeper of the Season award. While you can attribute a very good overall defensive effort to our conceding of 12 (twelve) goals throughout the league calendar, it remains a staggering achievement and will no doubt help his cause to become the German national team’s third choice keeper.
Emiliano Martinez (Argentinian, 26, 0 Apps)
Emiliano who? The Argentinian signed for us way back in 2011, is homegrown and not even vaguely good enough to be in the side. There’s got to be a reason why he’s made 14 (fourteen) appearances in all competitions over that lengthy period, right? Emiliano played mainly reserve team football all year, didn’t disappoint and never excelled, and I will be looking to cash in on him with Jack Butland about to join and hopefully producing some real competition for Leno’s starting jersey. Just think of all the keepers who have been and gone since Emiliano joined – Almunia, Fabianski, Mannone, Szczesny, Ospina, Cech, Leno – and you start to get a general idea of his real worth.
Hector Bellerin (Spaniard, 24, 23 Apps, 0 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.35)
Urbane and metrosexual Spaniard who remains a bright prospect on the pitch, albeit with genuine injury concerns that will almost certainly spell his doom (as an Arsenal player, that is). The main impression he left across 2018/19 was of someone who struggled with fitness. When he played, great. But then he was out for a month and then, while building his match fitness with the Under-23s, suffered an injury relapse that removed his services for a further four weeks before embarking on his long convalescence back to the starting line-up. He did go on to figure in the latter stages of our Europa League campaign, and there’s little doubt that on his day he’s far superior to anyone else at right-back, but man, those setbacks…
Calum Chambers (English, 24, 36(1) Apps, 1 Goal, 7 Assists, 7.48)
In reality Calum isn’t even a proper right-back. He’s a centre-half who has ‘filled in’ as required, only he turned out to be so good at it that he more or less made the role his own over the course of the campaign, and his lengthy spell in the first eleven while Bellerin was injured was immensely productive. I have concerns that he doesn’t seem to have developed much during the season, almost as though he should be training in a different position to the one he’s been playing, but he has proved to be at least a very useful squad player.
Sead Kolasinac (Bosnian, 25, 25 Apps, 0 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.31)
Bosnian international left wing-back who’s had a good year, albeit one in which he has fallen behind Kieran Tierney in terms of his overall importance to the cause. The truth is that Sead is being played out of his natural position – he isn’t really a full-back – and this no doubt has a knock-on effect where his effort is concerned; still he rarely let me down. He also has an aggressive streak that made him more card-liable, and he needs to bear in mind the fine line between competitiveness and outright thuggery.
Kieran Tierney (Scottish, 21, 35 Apps, 0 Goals, 7 Assists, 7.54)
A shining light in the Scottish ‘production line’ of talent and someone who emerged as our default best left-back during the season. Kieran has English as his dual nationality and I wish this meant we could keep him, however he’s as Scottish as deep-fried Mars bars and a queue of teams is developing for his signature. This could prompt a big money move for him, one that’s well deserved I feel, but we will miss him when/if he goes. His thrilling work on the left flank ultimately ended with him being named the Player of the Tournament in the Europa League.
Rob Holding (English, 24, 22(2) Apps, 2 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.44)
Flexible and developing English centre-back who is definitely improving, though he has struggled to break into the starting line-up with Sokratis and Luiz so eminent. Nevertheless Rob gave a good account of himself, was especially prominent in our continental campaign, effortlessly nudged ahead of Mustafi as our first reserve and showed that he had an eye for goal. He’s going precisely nowhere.
David Luiz (Brazilian, 32, 40(1) Apps, 3 Goals, 0 Assists, 7.30)
Hands up who doubted the crazy-haired Brazilian’s ability to be a good Arsenal defender? Yeah me too; someone who always looked like he had a mistake in him at Chelsea (and who can forget his sterling effort in opening the gate for the German attack during that game in Brazil?), he instead produced a stunning season’s work. If I could choose a player of the year then I think it would be him, a graceful and brilliantly organised defender with real footballing intelligence, whose contribution in replacing Laurent Koscielny, taking over the captaincy and lending the side a tightness at the back upon which all our success rested. Just superb; such a shame he’s (i) Brazilian (ii) in his thirties.
Shkodran Mustafi (German, 27, 17 Apps, 1 Goal, 2 Assists, 7.55)
When I started here the much criticised German defender looked fine. His squad status had been reduced to that of a rotation player, which seemed about right; on the whole a good guy to have around. But then it started going wrong. Mustafi was quick to complain about his lack of playing time despite being rotated regularly with the other defenders. When he was on the pitch we conceded more goals. His individual stats seemed okay but we were just more porous and that did for his chances of starting. A peripheral player who’s unhappy with his lot, has pretty much unified the rest of the squad against him, and will be sold as soon as possible in the summer. A shame, but absolutely for the best.
Sokratis (Greek, 30, 41(1) Apps, 0 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.21)
Tough as old boots Greek international centre-back, and by happy coincidence a perfect complement for David Luiz. The more physical, aggressive and granite hard alternative to David’s cultured performer, it’s possible to view Sokratis as an old school thug, but he’s effective with it and ended up with a paltry six yellow cards and zero dismissals, an excellent return when you consider the range of forwards that he was asked to deal with. He made a decisive difference to our overall defensive effort, and quite frankly I love him, though I wouldn’t want to come across him in a dark alley.
Dani Ceballos (Spanish, 22, 33(11) Apps, 2 Goals, 9 Assists, 6.88)
Our loanee from Real Madrid was pretty good in the Mezzala role, occasionally used in attacking midfield, without ever making me wish we could sign him permanently. A regular starter by default, mainly because he was ahead of Maitland-Niles and Willock in terms of development, there were too many moments when he could simply vanish from the field of play to make him invaluable to the cause. We wish him well and look forward to bringing someone in who’s basically better.
Matteo Guendouzi (French, 20, 23(15) Apps, 2 Goals, 4 Assists, 6.95)
As a rule I’m not a fan of box to box midfielders. I like to use someone in the deep lying role and another to support the attack, whereas the game Matteo brings is a bit of one and some of the other, specialising in neither. To his credit, the French youngster with the David Luiz haircut never embarrassed himself, worked like a Trojan, scored some critical goals and was generally an effervescent presence in matches and training. The danger is that he will steadily become increasingly peripheral as the side changes around him, and I may be tempted to sell if someone asks after him.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (English, 21, 16(35) Apps, 6 Goals, 1 Assist, 6.87)
Every side should have an Ainsley, I feel, an Academy product who is too reliable to sell, too flexible to not have some use, too promising to even consider selling. Past managers have used him as a full-back, but Ainsley is clearly a central midfielder by trade, able to operate as a Mezzala or playmaker, He’s improved during the season, putting himself on a par with Ceballos as the number one choice for his position, and I expect to see more of the same next season.
Mesut Ozil (German, 30, 34(2) Apps, 9 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.33)
A pleasant surprise. I’ll confess to getting a touch of the Unai Emerys when it came to Mesut, not sure if I could trust him until he called my bluff at a difficult point in the season, demanding to either get picked or be sold. I took the chance, gave him a consistent run in the starting line-up and he rewarded me with some terrific form that was the catalyst for our long unbeaten run, effectively leading to the title. All the same, doubts remain. As he always could, Mesut has the capacity to play anonymously, just as much as he can be in the thick of the action, orchestrating all our best work. Who knows from game to game which Ozil you’re going to get, or why…? Then there’s the matter of his wages, those bank-groaning £350,000 weekly pay-outs that we could invest in three major players if we were only able to get rid of him. Despite his heroics and generally good play this season the German is failing to attract alternative suitors, making ours a marriage of messy inconvenience. One thing for certain is that as long as he’s on the books we will ever find that salary to be a millstone.
Declan Rice (English, 20, 26(24) Apps, 0 Goals, 0 Assists, 6.89)
Poor Declan. Statistically one of the side’s more average performers, the contribution he made was vital. Played most often away from home, or brought on to shore up the defence as we guarded a 1-0 lead, which happened often, he made a huge difference. Deployed in the anchor role betwixt defence and midfield, he broke up attacks, made himself available for passes and in turn had the side’s highest average for passes completed, impressive in a team that ranked among the league’s best in this area. Most of his distribution was of the short and easy nature, finding someone nearby and then instantly finding space for the return, yet this so often ensured we could recycle the ball smoothly and retain possession. All this from a lad who’s only 20 and has more than a decade of this service to provide. Quietly and without fuss, Declan has become one of the Gunners’ most important players.
Lucas Torreira (Uruguayan, 23, 40(12) Apps, 3 Goals, 4 Assists, 7.03)
Uruguayan deep-lying playmaker who has answered the requirement for someone to terrorise central midfield, cause problems for the opposition, retain possession and help to spark attacks. More importantly he hasn’t made me regret my decision to send Granit Xhaka out on loan for the season, effectively ending his time at the club, in favour of Lucas who’as a real pocket rocket, a 5′ 6″ ball of energy who can do the job and do it cleanly, and it’s the latter element that compares him most favourably to Xhaka. Like Declan Rice, he doesn’t win too many plaudits for the job he does, but I think he’s great.
Joe Willock (English, 19, 11(5) Apps, 5 Goals, 3 Assists, 7.49)
Plucky youngster (he was 18 when I took over) who represents a great future for the Arsenal. Joe was used mainly in the Europa League, specifically in the group matches, where even as a teenager he ran riot against pretty much every challenger. I played him more sparingly in the league as there were better options and I preferred to focus on his development, but going forward things look bright for him. Think of a younger Jack Wilshere, only consistent and much, much less injury prone.
Reiss Nelson (English, 19, 26(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 14 Assists, 7.09)
For me Reiss is the team’s best emerging talent, a right winger who improved significantly as part of the first team set-up and threatened the place of Nicolas Pepe towards the end of the season. His pace was terrifying and technique levels excellent, but what really impressed me about him was that, like many of his fellow youngsters, he seems determined to develop and to produce for the team. I can’t ask for any more from this native Londoner who is now catching the eye of Gareth Southgate, even as a callow 19 year old.
Nicolas Pepe (Ivorian, 24, 34(11) Apps, 23 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.43)
Expensively acquired in the weeks before I took over, Ivorian international Nicolas has had an explosive campaign, justifying his high transfer fee by ending as our top scorer, which is really impressive when you consider the calibre of our strikers. Nicolas scored some really crucial goals along the way, though fans’ signature memories of him will no doubt centre around one of those mazy, dribbling escapades in the opposition half, the ball glued to his feet and defenders failing to rob him as he bears down on goal. A valuable member of the side.
Demarai Gray (English, 22, 44(3) Apps, 20 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.26)
We spent a lot of money on Demarai after our initial target – Jaden Sancho, no less – wanted nothing to do with us. That’s changed apparently. Jaden is now ‘extremely interested’ in a move to Arsenal, and I bet he is too, but Demarai has been such a revelation that I’m not sure we will even bother. A handy goalscorer and blessed with natural pace, many of his goals have come at critical moments – that brace at the Etihad in April, which handed us the league title – and overall he’s made an important contribution to the cause. He’s worth more than the large amount we paid for him, which is impressive work.
Emile Smith-Rowe (English, 18, 13(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.17)
Young English winger who spent three years before this one in the Academy and has never been out on loan, so he’s a real unknown quantity. My plan was to use him sparingly this season and then try to draft in someone like Sancho, but Emile has confounded me by getting better and better. Performing well in the Europa League group stage and in one tie scoring a hat-trick, he has broken into the Premiership side as a genuine alternative to Gray and potential challenger to his place in the starting eleven. We’re all very excited about him, this kid who refuses to be left out of the reckoning and shows a real determination to succeed.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabonese, 29, 29(14) Apps, 20 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.10)
Widely considered to be the jewel in Arsenal’s crown, despite his fine goals haul and generally positive play I’ve been a little bit disappointed with Pierre-Emerick. Too often he’s appeared listless and anonymous on the pitch; so many half-time substitutions and ultimately I will confess to preferring Lacazette overall. Still, his are the highest standards, so anything less than sparkling goalscoring feats of strength are going to leave his supporters feeling blue. One lesser known fact about him is his flexibility, the willingness he showed to fill in on the left wing and do so with confidence and verve. Now approaching 30, time isn’t on his side and Real Madrid want to sign him, so I might take this opportunity to cash in while his stock is high.
Alexandre Lacazette (French, 28, 35(12) Apps, 18 Goals, 9 Assists, 7.06)
Since the arrival of Aubameyang there’s been a sense of Alex being the junior partner in a stellar strike partnership. The Gabonese is the perfect forward, they say; quick and deadly, whereas Lacazette is slightly the lesser in every category. Well, allow me to retort. I’ve just found the Frenchman to be the better all-rounder, more like a complete forward. We all see Firmino as the ideal to aim for – Alex is much closer in his technique and approach, less the clinical marksman and more capable of drawing in his fellow forwards and dragging away defenders. That’s how I see it anyway. The numbers favour Auba; I prefer Laca overall, the man who forced his way into the reckoning at his illustrious teammate’s expense.