Declan Rice’s club-record arrival at Arsenal in a £105m deal is another sign of the club’s intent.
For three-quarters of the 2022-23 Premier League campaign, only good news attached itself to Arsenal.
With so little expectation, they emerged as the team most likely to end Manchester City’s domestic dominance.
The Gunners dropped only five points before the World Cup and, after a stutter in February when they picked up just one point from three matches, went on a run of seven wins in a row, culminating in the 4-1 victory against Leeds on 1 April.
It meant Mikel Arteta’s men were eight points clear with nine games left, albeit City had a game in hand.
It didn’t work out the way they hoped.
Surrendering two-goal leads against Liverpool and West Ham in successive outings set off a tailspin. They won only three more games and eventually finished second, five points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s side.
Still, shrugging off the disappointment was easy. Beyond question, Arsenal had vastly exceeded pre-season expectations.
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As the 10th richest club in the world, according to Deloitte, they were not exactly the plucky underdogs some might have characterised them as. But Arsenal fans certainly had a lot to look forward to.
And it cannot be argued they have failed to push on.
In committing more than £100m to the signing of Rice from West Ham, £65m to sign Chelsea forward Kai Havertz and £34m spent on Dutch international defender Jurrien Timber from Ajax, Arteta has received significant backing.
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Rice can be Arsenal’s Vieira figure
Arsenal’s signing of Rice is a real statement of intent.
Arteta identified the England man as someone who could provide the athleticism and vision he felt Arsenal lacked in the middle of the pitch.
Although primarily used as a defensive midfielder at West Ham, Arteta knows Rice is capable of making an impact in an attacking sense as well.
This would arguably give the Gunners the kind of inspiration in the centre of the pitch they have lacked since the departure of legendary club captain Patrick Vieira in 2005.
Evidently, Rice’s goal output needs to increase from the career-best seasonal haul of five he has managed in each of the past two campaigns but in a side that prefers to control possession rather than hit on the counter like West Ham, that is well within his capabilities.
In addition, Rice is a leader. Still only 24, the former Chelsea trainee has effectively been West Ham’s captain for the past two seasons. He fronted up when David Moyes’ side struggled last season and never showed any lack of respect for the Hammers, even when he must have known his time with them was drawing to a close.
His reaction around the Europa Conference League final victory over Fiorentina, when he became only the second man after Bobby Moore to lead the Hammers to European glory, earned praise from everyone connected with the club.
Rice may not get the captain’s armband this season, with Martin Odegaard already installed in the role, but he is certainly someone who can keep driving Arsenal forward in tough situations, as Vieira used to do.
Arteta must get best out of stars
In sanctioning the move for Havertz, Arteta has triggered the ‘where will he play’ question.
It is true that in Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal already have two outstanding wide attacking players. They bought a reinforcement in January in the form of Leandro Trossard, can release captain Odegaard into a more offensive role following the arrival of Rice and also have Gabriel Jesus to spearhead their attack.
The smart money is on Havertz being used in a midfield role.
However, criticism of the German’s arrival does conveniently overlook the fact that when Arsenal stumbled at the end of last season, the claim was made they did not have the required strength in depth.
Arteta is addressing that. And he will be judged accordingly.
He won’t get criticised for leaving Eddie Nketiah out in favour of Jesus for a key Premier League game, for instance. But if he leaves a big-name international out of his starting line-up and results go wrong, fingers will be pointed.
Arsenal made a brave call in choosing Arteta to be Unai Emery’s successor in December 2019 when he was just 37.
By the end of his first season in charge, he had rewarded the north London giants by delivering them the FA Cup.
Arsenal made another brave call in sticking with Arteta – first in the summer of 2021 after they had finished eighth and then in 2022 after another season outside the top four, the first time that had happened in six successive campaigns since the 1970s.
He rewarded them last year by taking Arsenal closer to the title than anyone could have imagined.
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Amazingly, Arteta is now the ninth-longest serving manager in English football. In the Premier League, only Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Brentford’s Thomas Frank have been in position longer. There are justifiable reasons why it is difficult to imagine the jobs of that trio being in jeopardy.
Of his top-flight rivals, only Moyes has also been in position for two years or more – and he teetered on the brink of dismissal at West Ham on numerous occasions last term before delivering the club’s first silverware in more than 40 years.
Over the past three summers, Arsenal’s net spend exceeds £400m, outstripping everyone, including Chelsea, given they are in profit during the current close season and were two years ago, with the dramatic splurge in between.