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Arsenal could be in for a turbulent ride in the transfer market this summer, with a limited budget and the possible departure of at least one of their star names.
The issues that need addressing are already mounting for head of football Raul Sanllehi, with reports emerging that the club may need to sell talismanic striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to avoid losing him on a free transfer in summer 2021.
There are also suggestions Arsenal are struggling to tie prodigious youngster Bukayo Saka down to a new contract, with his deal set to expire at the same time as the Gabonese frontman.
Then there’s the tricky matter of how to go about strengthening the Gunners’ squad while simultaneously balancing the books, if manager Mikel Arteta is unable to achieve Champions League qualification in the final weeks of the Premier League season.
His side are currently eight points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, although a spot in Europe’s elite tournament may open up for the division’s fifth-best team if Manchester City are banned from UEFA competitions in 2020/21.
Arsenal are on good form. But even closing a five-point gap to overhaul Manchester United – the Red Devils are currently occupying fifth spot and playing well themselves – looks a tough ask.
The North Londoners will, therefore, have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, which means devising a transfer strategy that extracts maximum value from the market. This is likely to involve recruiting youngsters with re-sale value, while trying to get ageing stars on high wages off the books.
Aubameyang will turn 31 in June and should technically fall into the latter category. But it is hard to imagine how Arsenal will replace his goals if he does indeed leave the Emirates this summer. A more desirable departure would be that of Mesut Özil. But the German international is proving a hard man to shift.
The midfielder’s reticence to move elsewhere should hardly be a surprise – Özil signed a staggeringly lucrative £350,000-a-week contract in January 2018 and is fully aware no other team is likely to offer anything close to that amount for his services.
In hindsight, the club’s decision to offer him such an exorbitant sum looks particularly foolish. But context is important. Arsenal were in the fractious final year of Arsène Wenger’s reign and had just lost Alexis Sánchez to Manchester United earlier that month. Keen to avoid the perceived crisis of both Sánchez and Özil (whose contract was up that June) departing, their hierarchy bit the bullet and opened the purse strings.
It was a woefully short-sighted judgement call and the playmaker’s form since that day has failed to live up to his status as Arsenal’s highest earner.
The 2018/19 season saw Özil play a part in 24 Premier League matches, scoring five goals and assisting two more. But that respectable (if unspectacular) return masked his patchy-at-best form, which saw the former 2014 FIFA World Cup winner fail to make an impact in the majority of fixtures.
Sure, there were moments of magic from a player that has a supreme vision and technical ability on his day, but an xG of just 1.38 for that campaign reflects Özil’s inability to really put his stamp on most matches during Unai Emery’s first year in charge.
Things declined even further in the early stages of this season, as Özil was only selected to play in four league games before the Spanish coach was removed from the Emirates hot seat in late January. He has once again become a mainstay in the team under Arteta, but the jury is still out on the Gelsenkirchen-born No.10.
Özil has been neat and tidy with the ball, as reflected by a pass completion rate of 89.4 per cent, but any end product has been negligible. An average of 0.47 shots per 90 minutes in 2019/20 just isn’t good enough for an attacking midfielder. Especially one who is hardly renowned for making much of a contribution beyond his offensive impetuous.
Özil isn't a terrible player. It's just that he doesn’t come close to justifying his eye-watering salary. That would be true at the best of times, but it’s especially impactful when Arsenal are having to recruit on a meagre budget compared with some of their ‘big six’ rivals.
Reports have emerged this week suggesting that no contract extension will be on the cards for the 92-cap German international when his deal finally expires in 2021. But is that really a surprise? Özil’s wages are a noose around Arsenal’s neck as they go about trying to reshape their squad. The sooner they can get rid of him the better.
A refusal to take a 12.5 per cent wage reduction during the ongoing coronavirus crisis is unlikely to have won the former Real Madrid star too many friends in North London. In truth that decision changes very little – the Gunners would presumably have been looking to get his salary off the books regardless.
It seems unlikely Özil would accept a massively reduced contract offer and he has shown no signs of pushing for a move before his contract reaches its conclusion.
Once a first-class footballer, it’s a testament to how far he has fallen that there will surely be a sigh of relief around Arsenal’s corridors of power when that day finally comes.