Mikel Arteta is building towards an exciting future at Arsenal with a crop of talented youngsters and his latest move in the transfer market suggests he is set to complete the set
The last time there was such optimism surrounding an Arsenal side, the club were challenging for Premier League titles and the Champions League.
But at long last, Mikel Arteta has assembled a squad of players the fans can get behind — and he could complete the set with a £45million move for Dusan Vlahovic.
It is almost reminiscent of the way Arsene Wenger assembled a squad of players, finding the perfect blend of quality and work ethic, to build the ‘Invincibles’ army.
Of course, there is absolutely no suggestion here that Arteta’s Arsenal can embark on a 49-game run without losing, going unbeaten for an entire season in the process.
If the great Manchester City and Liverpool sides of 2018-19 and 2019-20 couldn’t manage to break the record, surely no one in English football can.
Arteta doesn’t have Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira or Sol Campbell at his disposal, four of the best players in the world at the time. What he does possess, however, is an exciting crop of six or seven youngsters that, with the right coaching philosophy, could go on to become a real force.
Who is to say that Saka, Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Aaron Ramsdale, Martin Odegaard, Ben White and Albert Sambi Lokonga will not go on to fulfil potential and become world-class players? Some would argue the first two names already are, given how they have performed so consistently this season.
Of course, this project has not been an overnight success story. It has taken time and patience to build an Arsenal side even capable of challenging of Champions League qualification, let alone anything beyond that.
Arteta may even consider himself fortunate to still be employed by the club after two separate periods where he was left on the brink of the sack. Now, the board will be relieved they did not cave in and their faith is starting to be repaid.
It is not even be Arteta’s achievement alone to take credit for. Youth academy chief Per Mertesacker has overseen a drastic overhaul of the academy setup and brought in some of the finest coaches in the game. And it should be pointed out his predecessor Unai Emery handed debuts to both Saka and Smith Rowe.
But he is starting to put the finishing touches to his 2021 revamp., which centred around getting rid of deadwood like Ozil and Shkodran Mustafi to bring in fresh talent to reinvigorate a lifeless, soulless Arsenal side.
A glance over to west London with Chelsea demonstrates what can be achieved with young and determined players. The Blues started with Reece James and Mason Mount in their first-choice starting XI in the Champions League final — and they beat Man City.
Granted, there was a £220million spending spree eight months earlier that preceded their triumph in Porto, and the most expensive signing scored the winning goal. But just like Chelsea, Arsenal are building for the future and prioritising long-term success over the short-term — that has to be the benchmark.
With any luck, Arteta’s side will record their first top-four finish since 2015-16 when they finished second under Arsene Wenger.
The tussle for that final Champions League qualification spot is likely to be fierce and could go down to the wire between the Gunners, Tottenham, Manchester United and West Ham.
There is every chance they could beat those sides on current form, having won 11 of their last 16 games in the Premier League. The manner in which they dominated Man City, before a second-half collapse, hinted at what Arteta has been looking to build in his two years at the club.
Some would argue all they need now is a striker capable of netting 20 goals a season not named Aubameyang, and Arteta may have found his man. Reports in Italy suggest the Gunners have submitted a £46m player-plus-cash offer for Fiorentina’s Vlahovic.
The Serbian struck 21 goals in the Serie A last season and 16 for the Viola already in just 19 appearances — and it’s only January. With all due respect to the Viola, they are a top-half team in Serie A at best, so moving to Arsenal would represent a step up in his career.
Capturing Vlahovic would send a warning that Arsenal mean business. They already spent £150m reshaping the squad by signing six players, including Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Martin Odegaard. All three are under the age of 24 and still have the best years of their career to come.
At 21, Serbia international Vlahovic may well be worth throwing another £50m or even £60m at. There is enough to suggest about the towering striker that he will have no issues adapting to the physicality of the Premier League and scoring at a rate that only Robert Lewandowski can better suggests he could be a star in the making.
There is talent bursting out of every position on the pitch at the Emirates now and the recent breakthrough of exciting prospect Charlie Patino, who made his debut in the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Sunderland at the age of just 18.
Similarities can be drawn with how Wenger had paved the way for Cesc Fabregas to become a first-team regular at such a young age. Arteta has done something similar with 20-year-olds Saka and Smith Rowe.
They may not ever be as good as the original ‘Invincibles’ at Arsenal. But there is enough about Arteta’s group, the next generation, to believe they can bring back glorious times to the red side of north London.