There’s a renewed sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after just over three months with Mikel Arteta at the helm. The club sunk to its lowest ebb in more than two decades under Unai Emery – sitting in eighth place and eight points off a Champions League place on the day of his departure – but the green shoots of recovery have certainly started to grow during the early stages of his replacement’s tenure.
Arsenal have only lost once in ten league matches since Arteta’s reign got underway in late December, but a newfound resilience and belief can’t completely paper over the holes in the Gunners’ squad. Five of those ten unbeaten games have been draws and a Europa League elimination by Olympiacos over two legs was a chastening reminder that this side are far from the finished product.
Three FA Cup victories have added to the feeling that things are on the up in North London, but Arteta will still need to reshape and mould this squad in his image over the summer. That process has already started with the (albeit temporary) additions of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí from Southampton and Flamengo in January, and it’s likely that Arsenal’s recruitment team will be spending the coming months identifying further signings that are available on a relatively modest budget.
The Gunners may not have the spending power of their ‘big six’ rivals if they fail to achieve Champions League qualification for a third successive year, but will need to make a handful of signings in key areas if they are to regain their place in Europe’s elite next season.
One of those areas is at centre-back, where Arsenal are well stocked but lacking in the quality needed to break into the top four. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi have improved under Arteta but are limited defenders at best, while relative youngsters Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos have seen their development curtailed by injury over the past year.
Marí has made a solid start to his Arsenal career and his loan deal could well be made permanent if he continues to impress, if and when Premier League football resumes. Gunners fans also have the arrival of hot prospect William Saliba to look forward to. The 19-year-old Frenchman returns from a season-long loan at former club Saint-Étienne after signing for £27million last summer, but it will be crucial not to heap too much pressure on his young shoulders.
Quality, not quantity, is the order of the day then. Next summer will surely be as much about getting a couple of centre-backs out of the door as well as recruiting one, but the addition of a first-class defender would do wonders to improve Arsenal’s defensive displays. The numbers from this season don’t make for particularly pleasant reading, with the Gunners in the Premier League’s bottom five for everything from duels won (52.82 per 90) and interceptions (9.18 per 90), to ball recoveries (58.29 per 90) and aerial duels won (13.43 per 90). Improvements at the heart of defence would go some way to resolving these issues.
The latest name to be linked with a move to the Emirates Stadium is Athletic Bilbao centre-back Unai Núñez, with La Razon reporting Arsenal are willing to meet the Basque defender’s €30million release clause in order to bring him to the capital.
At 23 years old, it’s not hard to see why a price that equates to £26million would be seen as good value by head of football Raúl Sanllehí. Núñez’s star is currently burning brightly – he received his first full cap for Spain midway through 2019 and won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship last year – but it’s the potential for polishing a rough diamond that will really appeal to the Arsenal hierarchy. Whether it’s years of service or healthy resale value, the Bilbao star looks to be a shrewd investment for a club that needs to see a return on their limited funds.
That will only happen if he performs in the Premier League, of course. It can be difficult to ascertain whether a player will transition smoothly to a new country and a new division, but the 6ft 1in defender appears to be performing at a level that warrants attention in LaLiga.
Núñez’s strength lies in his ability to nullify threats by getting in the way of the ball. He has managed to block an average of 0.94 shots per 90 in his 12 league appearances this season, which is the sixth most of any player in Spain’s top flight. He performs similarly well when it comes to completed clearances (4.91 per 90) and is proficient in the air too – only three players can better his 3.21 headed clearances per 90.
But he's also comfortable with the ball at his feet and an 80.2 per cent pass completion rate should make him a good fit, in a team that is expected to play out from the back by their manager.
The ideal scenario for Arsenal is that they are able to acquire a player who can pull the rest of their backline into shape, much like Virgil van Dijk was able to do when he arrived at Liverpool. But with a whole host of positions to strengthen in the off-season, Arteta might have to make do with a defender who can grow into that role rather than the finished article.
If that’s the case then Núñez could be an excellent addition to compliment Saliba at the heart of Arsenal’s defence next season. At a reasonable price and with room to develop, the Spanish centre-back looks to be exactly the kind of player that the Gunners should be targeting over the coming years.