Even at a time of rampant inflation in the UK, it was conspicuous when a Spanish man in north London agreed to pay £105m for Rice and £36m for Timber; Declan Rice and Jurrien Timber, admittedly, and if the midfielder’s price tag ranks among the highest ever shelled out by a Premier League club, the Dutch defender has the potential to look a relatively good deal for Arsenal.
But each, like Kai Havertz, is a testament to Mikel Arteta’s expensive ambition; to his relentless drive and his permanent restlessness too. Arsenal’s summer spending will soon exceed £200m. Their outlay over last season’s two transfer windows came to around £170m, while summer 2021 totaled around £150m. only in fees. None of them even make Arsenal the biggest spenders in the capital, and if Chelsea still have the air of an anomaly, there is also a cost in competing with the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Tottenham and now Newcastle. And when Arteta inherited a mid-table team, he started from a low base; there was a greater need for reconstruction.
Still, it is remarkable that Arteta’s response to a breakthrough season has been so dramatic. The exponential improvement of both the team – from 69 points in 2021-22 to 84, from 61 goals to 88 – and both individuals, whether in Martin Odegaard’s transformation into a goalscorer, Ben White’s conversion to right-back, William Saliba’s makeover from the league bed to defensive mainstay or Bukayo Saka’s new status as one of the best players in the country – could have pointed to a model for continued development. Instead, there is more of a revolutionary feel to Arsenal’s summer.
If 2021, with an investment in youth, seemed to have laid out a plan for years, and 2022, with the acquisition of Manchester City pair Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus, seemed to be another phase, the stakes seem to have been raised again in 2023: taking on City for Rice and taking Champions League final scorer Havertz from Chelsea.
But a departure that could free up space for either has both a footballing and a symbolic meaning. Granit Xhaka was the last Arsene Wenger signing to remain decisive; redeeming a season that the Swiss had, Rice and Havertz look upgrades. If the Timbers’ arrival heralds Rob Holding’s exit, another link with the Wenger era will be gone. Should Kieran Tierney leave, as is possible, there will be less of Unai Emery’s legacy left: Saliba signed under the current Aston Villa manager but never played for him, while Gabriel Martinelli’s first Premier League start came under caretaker manager Freddie Ljungberg , a couple. weeks before Arteta’s appointment.
This is Arteta’s Arsenal now. He will not celebrate his fourth anniversary until December, but the speed of change is reflected not only in the composition of the squad, but also in who is actually on the field. Of the 14 footballers who played the most Premier League minutes for Arsenal last season, one (Xhaka) was bought by Wenger, two (Saliba and Martinelli) joined under Emery and two (Saka and Eddie Nketiah) were youth team products, which was barely present before. Arteta took charge. The other nine – seven of the 11 with the most minutes plus January recruits Leandro Trossard and Jorginho – were Arteta signings. Tierney finished 15th, the oft-injured Takehiro Tomiyasu 16th and Holding 17th.
So even factoring in the likelihood that another Hale End Academy graduate, Emile Smith Rowe, will feature more in the coming campaign, along with another January addition, Jakub Kiwior, and the division of labor is likely to be shifted further towards Arteta’s arrivals. Eight of the likely first 11 could be his signings, along with perhaps 13 of the 18 most-used players.
The preferred 11 could feature a few notable omissions: the speed of change could mean some of Arteta’s flagship signings are sidelined. Thomas Partey seems to fall from the stronger side; in defence, Tomiyasu was demoted last season, despite an encouraging debut year, and the Timbers’ signing will raise questions about whether the same fate awaits White, great as he was, or whether the newcomer proves a back-up.
In the meantime, a comparison is instructive. Three-and-a-half years into his mentor Pep Guardiola’s reign at City, a host of players bought under previous managers – David Silva, Fernandinho, Vincent Kompany, Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling – were still crucial. Three-and-a-half seasons into Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool, survivors of previous regimes such as Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Roberto Firmino, while others – Dejan Lovren, Joe Gomez, Divock Origi, Adam Lallana – were still involved. But three-and-a-half years into Arteta’s time at Arsenal, it’s quite possible that anyone featuring regularly will either be his signings or those who made only minor contributions under his predecessors. It really will be his team.