The Gunners technical director sat down during their US tour to talk through his plan in at the Emirates, ruthlessly overhauling the squad, the reason behind terminating players’ contracts and whether he intends to continue doing it
As Arsenal rounded off their tour of the USA with a 4-0 hammering of Chelsea, it was impossible to ignore the sense of identity that was apparent in their performance. Under Mikel Arteta the Gunners have established themselves as a side operating in a clearly defined 4-3-3 system that looks set to help them challenge for the top four this season. It hasn’t always been like this.
When Edu Gaspar arrived at the club in the summer of 2019 as the club’s technical director, he found a team unsure of itself. After ending Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign in North London by bringing in Unai Emery, Arsenal had failed to establish a distinguishable style in his first season.
While missing out on the Champions League places by a point and reaching a Europa League final papered over the cracks, the Gunners failure to discover their new identity came to a nadir the following season as the found themselves eighth in the Premier League by November. It was at this point that Edu decided to embark on a new strategy that has led the club to where they are today.
“With all due respect, the plan started really when we decided to change Unai Emery,” the Brazilian says. “That was my first planning – to go to the board, explain to them the reason we want to change, the reason we want to go a different direction.
“The idea behind it was to have a coach with a very clear idea. A very clear plan. Very clear structure – how he wants to play. And from that we’re going to build something together.
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“We had to be really brave to make the decision in the middle of the season. Internally people said to me: ‘wow, we never did that before. We did that a long, long time ago’. I said no problem, but if you have already diagnosed it’s not our plan, change. As soon as possible. Otherwise you’re going to postpone, postpone, postpone. In football sometimes the decision has to be (made) quickly. It hurts, it’s challenging., but it has to be done.”
It was this clear strategy that brought Edu to Arteta. Across a lengthy interview process with several candidates, the clarity of the Spaniard’s ideas are what got him the job.
While youth was not necessarily at the forefront of Arteta’s plans during these interviews, since his arrival in December 2019, Arsenal have seen an unprecedented squad turnover, with around 40 players leaving and 25 coming in. This has brought the average age of the squad down from 26.5 when Arteta took over to just 24.5 at the start of last season. For Edu, this ruthless evolution has been an essential part of his revolution in North London.
“For me there are three elements which in my role I have to be really prepared to be strong on the message to the players,” he says. “When the player is 26-plus, (with a) big salary and he’s not performing, he’s killing you that kind of player because you don’t have a valuation to sell the player. The player is comfortable – Arsenal, London, beautiful, everything is fantastic – and a good salary. How do you move this player?
“So how many players with that kind of characteristics did we have in the past? 80 per cent of the squad, that’s why I said to (the board) when I made my plan: guys, it’s not easy to clean the squad straight away because most of the players have a 2-3-4 year contract. We need a strategy, we need to try to change things.”
Having updated the demographics of the squad though, the next step in Arsenal’s plan is to change the mentality around the club. Last season the Gunners missed out on Champions League football on the final day of the Premier League season, despite having had a four-point lead over Tottenham with just four games to go, and while Edu admits that finishing in the top four would have been ahead of schedule for Arsenal, it is his feeling that psychological factors are what stopped them from defying expectations in the end.
“If we got Champions League last season, we would have advanced one year [ahead] in the project,” he says. “In those kinds of moments — we’re going to play an important game, pressure, we have to win the game to be in the Champions League — you need a squad with… ‘I want to kill someone.’ You know? I’m not saying we don’t have a [good] squad, but we need a bigger squad with personalities, with some behaviours, that say, ‘I don’t lose that game. I will kill someone but I don’t lose the game.
With the additions of Gabriel Jesus, Fabio Vieira and Oleksandr Zinchenko in particular this summer Arsenal have tried to address that. Edu admits that the trio’s mentality were considered first and foremost when deciding whether to add them to the squad and hopes that this will now spread not just to the rest of the players, but across the club as a whole.
“I think we’ve added some more players with that kind of character,” he says. “Talk to Gabriel, talk to Zinchenko, talk to Fabio. [Points to head] Here is the win. Ah, Champions League, ok — I accepted that, because I want to be realistic. But here [head], I want to win. A club like Arsenal, at our size, is not building to be fighting for fourth place. I’m sorry.
“We have to realistic — there’s City, Liverpool etc — that’s fine, I accept that. But also, you can not accept that. Here, when you join this club, when you see our size, we cannot accept it.
“That’s why I was really really hurt when I arrived. I said, ‘That’s not the mentality of this football club. What’s happening? Everybody’s comfortable, everybody’s ok, ok, ok…’ F*** you, “ok”! “Ok”?! No, I don’t want to lose games! We have to be there again.
“And I want to see the physios, I want to see the scouting, I want to see everyone with that kind of feeling, where you say, “F***ing hell, now we are going to really go for things”. And I think we are changing. Again, it doesn’t happen overnight, but I think we are changing and putting some good mentality in the squad. Characters.”
That shift does already appear to be taking place. As Gabriel Jesus was shoved to the ground by Yerry Mina the Brazilian drew praise from Arteta for immediately rising back up to retaliate. That mentality appears to be spreading through the squad as the usually mild-mannered Eddie Nketiah was booked for stopping Jorginho from taking a quick free-kick while Nuno Tavares was seen standing his ground as Reece James squared up to him during the second half of what was supposedly a pre-season friendly against Chelsea.
Of course, with a process as long and variable as what Arsenal are trying to enact at the Emirates Stadium, not everything has gone to plan. As much as some shrewd acquisitions have helped to transform the team, profitable player sales have been harder to come by.
Last summer, the only significant fee that the Gunners were able to extract for any of their players was the £25 million they obtained for Joe Willock from Newcastle, while the summer prior Emi Martinez’s £20 million move to Aston Villa was the only influx of cash they were able to generate from transfers. There have been mitigating factors in this poor record. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the financial power of many teams on the continent, while disciplinary issues have forced the hurried departures of certain players.
Arsenal’s desire to overturn the squad quickly in the absence of suitable buyers has seen them terminate the contracts of Sokratis, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and there is a possibility that more could follow this summer. For Edu though, this is a necessary sacrifice in order to avoid any stagnation in the project.
“If you imagine, ‘Oh, no problem: this season we’re going to expose the player a little bit more and then we sell them’ — no, be realistic,” he says. “You don’t want to sell the player (but you have to) try to avoid one more year with the problem inside, in the dressing room, expensive, not performing. Clean, take it out. Even, I’m sorry, if you have to pay. To leave is better. Because that guy is sometimes also blocking someone.
“Take it out. I know it hurts, I know it’s strange when I go to the board and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to pay a player to leave, than maintain them,’ but I consider it an investment. Sometimes people say, ‘It’s expensive’ I say, ‘no, it’s investment’. But someone will pay if you sell? No, guys — if the player is above 26, 27 and not performing, big salary, no chance.”
Even if there are further contract terminations to come, this is something Edu is viewing as a purely short-term policy until he has Arsenal’s squad in a place where he wants it. He accepts that selling is an important part of ensuring the sustainability of football teams, and is aiming to move Arsenal towards a position where they are better at it.
Whereas before the group was packed with players over the age of 25 on big contracts who were more difficult to shift, the Brazilian now feels he is moving closer towards a group where Arsenal can have more control of their value in the transfer market to ensure that they are able to put a succession plan in place after big players leave.
“Tell me how many players in the squad we have with those characteristics (of being over 25 on big contracts) today,” he says. “I can tell you next summer (we won’t have as many). Have a look at the valuation of the players we have, the age of the group what we have, and the salaries that we have today. Now, as part of the plan, we create value in our players today. All this squad today, is because I don’t want to face that situation many times more. Now if someone wants, say, Gabriel — ok, come here. No problem.”
“Part of the plan is when you are starting to sell the players, that’s the challenging one,” he goes on to add. “You already need someone prepared. (If we can) sell, (and) we are able to do that and then chapeau. It’s very challenging.
“For example, let’s talk about next season or another. If we sell, I don’t know, Bukayo Saka – that’s not going to happen but it’s just an example. If we’re going to sell Bukayo Saka, we as a club have to prepare his replacement straight away. So someone has to be in the squad or we have to manage the market well so if we sell we have him, we have someone straight away to replace him in our model. ”
Speaking to Edu what comes across most pertinently is the clarity with which he views the project at Arsenal. Whether you like what the Gunners are doing or not, unlike when the Brazilian came in, it’s difficult to accuse them of acting without a plan any more.