Mikel Arteta has overseen a vast squad restructure in almost four years as Arsenal’s head coach and now manager — this is now his team.
Going into the north London derby on Sunday, with Tottenham counterpart Ange Postecoglou trying to perform a similar cultural reset after his summer appointment, only three of the Spaniard’s 25-strong squad did not join the club during his tenure — Mohamed Elneny, Gabriel Martinelli and William Saliba — and five more are academy graduates, meaning the other 17 were all players brought in since January 2020.
Arteta inherited 11 players from the Arsene Wenger era and nine who arrived under Unai Emery when he was appointed at Christmas in 2019, then only added two loan signings in the following January window.
This summer, the departures of Rob Holding to Crystal Palace, Kieran Tierney to Real Sociedad (on loan), Granit Xhaka to Bayer Leverkusen and Nicolas Pepe to Trabzonspor were the final shift to a squad built fully in Arteta’s image.
While there might be more additions and departures in January, Pepe’s departure felt seismic, like it brought a finality to an old chapter — almost two years since what proved his final start for Arsenal in October 2021 — but also highlighted the importance of compatibility in recruitment.
The strong relationship that has been built between Arteta and sporting director Edu Gaspar, along with the streamlined recruitment team, has given Arsenal a much clearer identity in the market over the past two years. They have predominantly signed players 24 or under with Premier League experience, which has returned a much greater success rate.
Contrast that to the signing of Pepe in August 2019, when Emery was the manager. Having joined from Lille in France for a club-record fee of £72million ($88.2m at current rates), he left for Turkey’s Trabzonspor on a free transfer earlier this month, after agreeing to terminate his contract despite having a year left.
Arsenal had written many huge cheques just to get rid of players; £42.5million forward Mesut Ozil terminated his contract with six months remaining in January 2021 after being phased out; £58m striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was paid to tear up his deal 18 months early in February last year; £50m forward Alexandre Lacazette was allowed to return to Lyon on a Bosman transfer the following summer after five seasons in north London.
Pepe’s signing was perhaps the clearest sign of how Arsenal had moved away from Wenger’s lukewarm attitude towards agents following his departure at the end of the 2017-18 season. His successor Emery had asked for Palace’s Wilfried Zaha as the specific right-footed left-winger he desired to bring his ideas to life. Instead, he was given Pepe — a left-footed right-winger.
Arsenal’s then sporting director Raul Sanllehi had a pre-existing relationship with Lille chief executive Marc Ingla, a former Barcelona colleague. Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes was also brought in as an intermediary and Arsenal paid a fee more than double what Pepe had been available for a year earlier.
His 23 goals and 12 assists in 41 games for the Ligue 1 side in 2018-19 had boosted his profile but many in football felt it to be over the odds, which started to form a peculiar pattern. The summer before signing Pepe, Arsenal also exceeded the asking price for goalkeeper Bernd Leno and paid €5million above the buyout clause for Lucas Torreira.
“I wasn’t involved in the process of that deal but what I can say is that he was a phenomenal boy who tried really hard, tried his best, so it’s not his fault the amount of money we paid at the time,” Arteta said of Pepe earlier this month.
“When things aren’t working, you have to move on. There is no point trying something when it’s not working for either (of us) so I think it’s best for both parties.”
Pepe’s record of 27 goals and 21 assists in 112 games for Arsenal is not immediately underwhelming, especially considering not much more than half of those appearances (67) were starts. He even finished second in Arsenal’s player of the season voting for 2020-21, when he played a major part in their run to the Europa League semi-finals, scoring six goals and assisting another four in 13 appearances in that competition.
As Arsenal endured a torrid start to the following season, though, Arteta started to phase him out. He described Pepe as a “free spirit” but one who “needed guidance”. The contrast to Bukayo Saka, who has always been defensively disciplined — plus increasing competition for places in forward positions — meant Pepe increasingly struggled.
When he returned to Ligue 1 late last August on a season’s loan to Nice, it was clear that a permanent exit was just a matter of time.
Between the summer 2018 and summer 2020 transfer markets, when Sanllehi left his post as the controlling presence in Arsenal’s recruitment strategy, they signed 21 players. Just four of them are still there.
Explained: Why Sanllehi left Arsenal and what it means for Arteta and Edu
That agent-led approach was Sanlehi’s way of working. Kia Joorabchian’s clients David Luiz, Cedric Soares and Willian were all signed within a year of each other. The latter move did not work out at all but Willian, then 34, did save Arsenal a small fortune in August 2021 when, instead of sitting on his big-money, two-year contract, he agreed to rip it up so he could move back to Corinthians, his boyhood club in Brazil.
Arsenal were not so lucky in some other transactions.
Of the 15 players to have been bought and sold from the Sanllehi era, Arsenal spent £217.4million in fees and recouped just £33.3m. That does not include wages or payments to end deals early.
In 2018, Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis had wanted to replace Wenger’s empire with a broad church of footballing expertise. “We zig where others zag,” he said. His version of that motto was to appoint Barcelona’s Sanllehi, poach Sven Mislinat from Borussia Dortmund as head of recruitment and hire Huss Fahmy as a contracts specialist.
Gazidis soon left for the same job at AC Milan, and while his idea of combining Sanllehi’s thick book of contacts with Mislintat’s sharp eye for young talent was a sound theory, it worked far less smoothly in practice. The dynamic between Sanllehi and Mislintat never worked.
Mislintat, who is Ajax’s director of football these days — and is cooperating with an investigation over a potential conflict of interest over a player being bought through an agency that has a stake in his firm, Matchmetrics — ended up only staying at Arsenal until January 2019, after not securing the role of technical director.
The loan signing of Denis Suarez in that winter window, at the expense of promoting young attacking talents, became one of the final straws, with the 25-year-old Spaniard hardly featuring during his four months at the Emirates Stadium (four Premier League appearances, none of them a start) due to a groin problem. Mislintat had been looking at Christopher Nkunku, then a 17-year-old stuck behind a queue of superstars at Paris Saint-Germain who became a £52million Chelsea signing this summer, along with other proven players including Croatia wing-back Ivan Perisic and Belgium attacker Yannick Carrasco.
Mislintat exclusive: I don’t feel ashamed of any of the transfers at Arsenal
By this point, Sanllehi was felt to have won the power struggle. He made himself the conduit between the Kroenkes, the American family who own the club, and anyone seeking direct contact with them.
Speaking to The Athletic last year, Sanllehi recalled making a toast to the new spine of power at the club following the appointment of Arteta as head coach in December 2019, joining his former Arsenal team-mate Per Mertesacker, who became the club’s academy manager in the summer of 2018. “Now, it is on us. Now it is exactly the model I asked for. If it does not work, we have no excuses,” he said.
Sanllehi left his position as head of football in 2020 and was replaced by Vinai Venkatesham, who became CEO (and is now set to leave at the end of the season). However, during the departures in senior positions, Edu and Arteta continued to ‘clean’ the squad.
The Spaniard has been given the tools he has asked for, and games like Sunday’s derby will help define whether he can build on last season’s success in the Premier League with the team built in his image.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)