Smith: Top four looks tough but Arsenal on right path

Sky Sports’ Alan Smith thinks Arsenal’s chance of finishing in the Premier League’s top four have been dented after a disappointing transfer window which saw no new signings arrive at the Emirates Stadium, but he believes his former club are still on right track under manager Mikel Arteta.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s departure to Barcelona on the Deadline Day saw him become the sixth member of Arsenal’s first-team squad to leave the club during the January transfer window.

The former Arsenal captain followed Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Folarin Balogun, Sead Kolasinac, Pablo Mari and Calum Chambers through the exit door without bringing in a single replacement, leaving many Arsenal fans disgruntled with their side’s business.

The outgoings also leave Mikel Arteta with just 18 senior outfield players to choose for the rest of the season and while Smith understands the frustration and concerns of the supporters, the former Arsenal striker believes the north London have learned from past mistakes in the transfer market as they look to continue to improve under the guidance of the Spaniard.

Read on for Smith’s thoughts on Arsenal’s transfer business, Aubameyang’s departure, the Gunners’ options in the centre-forward position and their top-four chances…

Should Arsenal have strengthened in January?

In an ideal world, I’m sure Arsenal would have preferred to have brought someone in but they have had their fingers burnt far too often in the recent past by bringing in players not at the required standard.

It’s so easy to bump up your wage bill with players who aren’t actually improving the team, and I think Arsenal are conscious of that.

They recruited really well last summer with Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale and others, and they want to continue down that path by being cute in the transfer market.

How things have ended up, obviously it does leave the manager short of options up front, especially, but he’s offloaded a fair few players who were on the fringes and he’s lightened that wage bill by a considerable amount with Aubameyang’s departure.

That is a big bonus when you look ahead to the summer transfer window.

‘Decisive Arteta takes Auba gamble’

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Dharmesh Sheth confirms a deal has been agreed between Arsenal and Barcelona for striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Mikel Arteta is proving to be a very decisive manager, especially with his dealings with certain players, none more so than Aubameyang.

That could have been something that was hanging around his neck for quite a while, but he decided quickly that he was not going to try and bring him back into the fold. He did not want to try and rehabilitate him and reintegrate him into the squad.

You do not know what has happened behind the scenes, but Arteta has drawn a line under it and he will want to move on from there pretty quickly.

It is a gamble. Every time the team cannot score a goal, that will be thrown in his face and I am sure he is fully aware of that and prepared for it. But he may just have the freedom now to try one or two things like playing Gabriel Martinelli down the middle at times.

I thought Arteta might try and get Aubameyang back on side given the vast outlay Arsenal had made on him, but only the manager and the player would know what the chances of that actually were.

He obviously decided he did not want to do that, and he wanted to make a clean cut. Managers are paid big money to make big decisions, and this is a big decision. There is no doubt about that.

But if Aubameyang does not fit into Arteta’s blueprint and the way he wants the team to play in that high energy style, and he does not feel the striker can reach the levels he has previously, then make the break and move on.

‘You have to make big decisions and Arsenal have done that’

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Take a look at how one of the biggest moves on Deadline Day happened as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left Arsenal for Barcelona on a free transfer

It is sad how Aubameyang’s time at Arsenal has ended but it is something that tends to happen a bit more in football these days.

He was a top-quality striker and at the time of his contract renewal, I do not think Arsenal could have done anything else but to have given him that new deal.

He was the top man at the club, a brilliant finisher and he was the envy of so many top clubs in the world. So, Arsenal wanted to keep hold of him and that was the right thing to do.

But his form fell off a cliff, basically. We all point to that new contract as to whether it made a difference but only he can answer that. Did his appetite go? Did he rest on his laurels? I don’t know but it is a sad way for his Arsenal career to end.

He is not particularly old and he should have some more good years left in him. We will see what happens at Barcelona, but it is disappointing that Arsenal have to let go of a player with that ability.

However, in business and in football you have got to make these difficult calls, and Arsenal have done that.

‘Arsenal are learning from past mistakes’

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Paul Merson tells Sky Sports News a potential move for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Arsenal to Barcelona ticks boxes for both clubs

I think this window does show that Arsenal are learning from past mistakes.

Obviously, the Mesut Ozil situation was a heck of a situation for Arteta to inherit. He finally sorted that one out and I said previously, it’s so easy to get lured into recruiting and keeping the best players, at that time, with huge salaries.

You never quite know how a player is going to react after that and whether he is going to keep on producing. It didn’t happen with Ozil and it didn’t happen with Aubameyang.

When you look at recruitment it is looking into the character of the player as much as anything. Liverpool have done it brilliantly over the last few years and are a model for most clubs to follow.

It does sound like Arsenal do now have that recruitment department in a much better shape.

There’s nothing really worse than panic buying in football. So much goes into a transfer and I would not mind betting that Arsenal have got one or two targets at least lined up for the summer.

January, as we know, is a notoriously difficult month in which to do deals but the summer does prove more straight forward sometimes.

You’d imagine they have got things in the pipeline and they will move quite quickly when the transfer window comes around again in the summer.

Can Nketiah take his chance?

Eddie Nketiah wants to play more first-team football

It should be a chance for Eddie Nketiah.

You would imagine he will get more opportunities now than he did previously.

We will wait and see. It does not seem to me Arteta is at all convinced by him as a starter.

He’s done well in the Carabao Cup and has scored goals, but that’s come mainly against clubs in the lower divisions.

When he has had the chance from the start in the Premier League, he’s not really convinced that he is somebody that can lead the line.

He’s a penalty area poacher and you need a little bit more than that as the striker in Arteta’s system, especially when you are playing through the middle on your own.

So, he’s still got plenty to prove at Arsenal but as to whether he can do that in the next few months, who knows.

He may be able to do it. He’s obviously trying to keep all his options open and make himself a more attractive proposition for clubs in the summer when he is available on a free transfer.

He will not be short of offers, I am sure, but perhaps he has sensed the manager does not really rate him. If that is the case, you would want to get away.

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out and if he can perhaps change the manager’s mind.

‘Laca the key man for Arsenal’

Alexandre Lacazette celebrates after putting Arsenal in front (AP)

Alexandre Lacazette will now have a crucial role to play for Arsenal.

He has been in decent form and he has taken on the responsibility as one of the senior members of the team. He has been a really useful asset in the starting XI, despite a few glaring misses here and there.

What’s going to happen regarding his future in the summer is also up in the air. It’s another conundrum for the club, but I am sure they are looking at another couple of strikers elsewhere, especially in the event that Lacazette does leave the club.

But before that, he will be an important figure between now and the end of the season as the most recognised centre-forward in the squad.

‘Martinelli could be an option for Arteta’

PA - Gabriel Martinelli

It might just be Martinelli’s time.

So far, he has been given a chance on the left and he has taken that chance. In order to be given an opportunity to play through the middle you have got to show you are in good form, you are fully fit and you are playing with confidence

He has done that so this could be a good time to move him inside.

There is precedence there, famously Thierry Henry started on the wing and moved into the striker position to great effect.

Arsenal’s formation and forward line can be quite fluid as well with a lot of interchanging of positions with Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard so it’s not like he will be positioned through the middle all the time.

But it is certainly an option for Arteta and one he should not be afraid to have a look at.

We have not seen enough of him through the middle yet and it is such a different challenge to playing out wide.

You do play more often with your back to goal even if you do want to be running in behind all the time. There are just occasions when you do have to mix it up and adapt to different situations.

It’s a different game to playing out wide where you receive the ball out on the touchline and you are taking on your man, playing one-twos and cutting inside.

You are normally up against two defenders in the two central defenders rather than just a full back so it will be a learning experience for him if he does end up through the middle, but I have no reason to think he could not do the job and a good job for Arsenal.

However, it does only come with practice.

What about a change of system?

Arsenal's Emile Smith Rowe celebrates after scoring their fourth goal (AP)

I think playing a false nine would be a step too far for this current Arsenal side at the moment.

Manchester City are a different proposition altogether. They play in that way and the players they have are very versatile tactically and they have such quality that they can thrive in that system.

Arteta has flirted with Smith Rowe in a false nine position and so far, it’s never really come off so at this time, I would imagine Arteta will stick with someone a bit more suited to a traditional striker role.

This is another challenge for Arteta, though. He will have to be creative and hope he does not lose any more players to injury or Covid, attackers especially because that would put him in a sticky situation with the squad depth Arsenal have at the moment.

He has left himself in a position where he does need a bit of luck along the way.

‘Top-four finish difficult but Arsenal on right track’

Bukayo Saka celebrates his goal with teammates

I did think Arsenal might sneak into the top four, but things do change every week with form and injuries.

It would be a heck of a result if Arsenal were to grab fourth now. They have got it all to do now and it may just be a step too far on this occasion.

Everyone has got to stay fit in those forward positions and they have got to hit form and stay in form all the way through to the end of the season because they do not have much wiggle room now in terms of the squad.

There is still a long time to go in this season, so we will see, but for Arteta, as much as he would love to get into the top four, it is also about improving the position of the club and the stature of the club.

They need to improve on those two eighth-placed finishes and become a more formidable team, and I think he is making those steps with this team. They are going in the right direction and are more respected now. They are not such a pushover anymore and defensively they are very organised.

So, whether or not they finish in the top four, Arsenal are heading in the right direction under Arteta, and that’s the main thing for the club and the manager at the moment.

There is still so much ground to make up for Arsenal. They have slipped a long way down the pecking order so something drastic really needs to be done to make up the gap and Arteta is trying to do that.

He is trying to turn over that team and produce a young, hungry unit. Aubameyang heading out is another step towards that.

It was always going to be slow process for Arsenal but if at the end of the season you can say that it was better than the previous season and you can look ahead to the next campaign with even more optimism, then that’s got to be a good thing.

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