Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta took to Zoom on Monday for his first pre-match press conference in some three months as his side prepare for a trip to Manchester City on Wednesday (June 17).
It was a surreal experience for all involved in the presser but a welcome return to something approaching normality as the Premier League gears up for its long-awaited return.
Although much of what was said was more or less what you’d expect, there were several nuggets of interest offered by Arteta, particularly around player contracts. Here’s what stood out for me:
It’s the first chance we’ve had in a long time to hear about the club captain’s contract situation and Arteta made it pretty clear that it was up to the club to try and convince Pierre that north London is the place for him to commit what will probably be the last big contract of his career.
He said: “I think it is our responsibility to make him feel this is the right next step in his career. In order to do that, he needs to feel valued, he needs to feel he belongs to us and we want him, and then he really needs to believe that we can take the club forward in the way we want to do, and he is going to be a key player to do that.
“At the moment I am extremely happy with how he has been performing and behaving, I have a really good relationship with him where we can discuss face to face a lot of things. As far as I am aware, he is very happy at the club.”
It’s pretty clear, then, that the stumbling block for the Gabon striker is where Arsenal are going as a club and whether or not he is prepared to wait for them to get there in the time he has left in the game. Does he believe enough in Arteta’s plan and a clear path to success to commit another three of four years or is, at 30, simply not prepared to wait another season or two to complete for serious sliverware.
Quite how the club will convince him of that given the dire financial straits it finds itself in, not to mention its current league position, is anyone’s guess but this is the clearest indication we’ve had that the onus is on the board to show the ambition required to keep a player of Auba’s calibre.
With five fixtures to fulfill in little more than two weeks, there is going to be a a lot of squad rotation required to prevent injuries and fatigue from derailing whatever momentum we might be able to build up between now and the end of the season.
With our pool of young players waiting eagerly in the wings, that could mean some serious game time in the weeks ahead as Arteta looks to tweak his team and tactics.
He said: I think it will happen, for example in our case we have five games in 15 days, that’s a game every three days. We don’t know how the players are going to respond physically because we have had a really short preparation time. We have to use them, we have some really talented young boys that are asking for chances.
“I’m sure at other clubs the situation will be the same and I think at some stage we will be forced to use some of them with the amount of games that we are going to be playing in that space of time.”
In terms of their respective futures, this could turn out to be a defining period for many of the club’s young stars, particularly those who have yet to earn the manager’s backing. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Matteo Guendouzi will have chances to prove their commitment and temperament, while Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock will have the chance to force their way into the manager’s thinking for the start of the next campaign.
Arteta said: We are trying, as a club, to finalise the deals that are more urgent and are a priority for us. The ones you are talking about [Bukayo and Auba] – they are both really important, not just for now but for the future of the club as well and if the club has something to announce, they will do it in the right moment.
What do I read into that? I get the feeling that something is in the pipeline for Saka. Not being at the press conference or watching it live robs me of nuance and inflection, but I find the phrase “if the club has something to announce, they will do it in the right moment” an interesting one.
It almost seems as if they have a deal for Saka wrapped up but are in the process of crossing the ‘Is’ and dotting the ‘Ts’, waiting for the ink to dry before revealing the news to fans. Perhaps, as they so often have in the past, the club is waiting for a spell of bad news to make the announcement, helping to take the edge off a defeat or some controversy.
There is, of course, always the risk of taking 2 x 2 and coming up with five when interpreting what a manager has said, especially in the age of non-answers, but I feel a little more confident about Saka’s situation now than I did a day ago.