Five Arsenal players Arteta must ditch to take the next step, including £70m outcasts

Matt Stead
Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey, manager Mikel Arteta and player Emile Smith Rowe
It's time for Mikel Arteta to get ruthless at Arsenal

Mikel Arteta should be trusted with taking Arsenal to the next step after their Champions League exit – but he and Edu must be ruthless with five sales.

Arteta told Arsenal they “have the capacity and the quality to be in the semi-final because the margins are very small” after their Champions League quarter-final defeat to Bayern Munich, but added that it takes “sometimes six or seven years to get to that stage”.

Having taken the club from consecutive eighth-placed finishes in the Premier League to successive title challenges and a first Champions League knockout-stage win since 2010, it seems safe to assume Arteta knows what he’s talking about in terms of the different steps teams must take in their development to reach the next level.

The manager must therefore understand the importance this summer has taken on for Arsenal, who need to continue their run of impressive transfer windows.

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Ever since Gary Neville chastised Arsenal for having no “plan”, “strategy” or “direction” in the market, they have rarely put a foot wrong. The stretch of first-team signings which started with Benjamin White in July 2021 and took in Martin Odegaard, Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Fabio Vieira, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Leandro Trossard, Jakub Kiwior, Jorginho, Kai Havertz, Jurrien Timber and Declan Rice has been abnormally good – although not without its missteps – and transformational in terms of squad building.

With losses also cut by cancelling the contracts of high-earning outcasts, Arteta and Edu have shown the ruthlessness required to move forwards. But that cannot stop and will only get harder when important players on this journey nevertheless have to be sold; once Mo Elneny and Cedric Soares leave upon the expiration of their deals in the summer, there are no obvious departures and sales will be necessary to appease the PSR overlords.

Arsenal need ‘magic’, a striker and about five more players, but this lot might have to go first.


Reiss Nelson
The first point to make is that Arsenal have a starting XI capable of rivalling any team. The second is that a few scratches beneath that surface reveal the crux of their problem.

For the second straight season, Arteta has been able to rely on the same core group of players; for the third straight season, Arsenal have faded in April. Five players have made 40 starts for them this campaign; Rodri is the only man to reach that mark for either Manchester City or Liverpool.

Arsenal have contended with injuries, but not in nearly the same way as their closest rivals. Eight regular starters – Saliba, Gabriel, Rice, White, Odegaard, Saka, Havertz and Raya – have generally been consistently available, with absences of a couple of games at worst due to suspension or knocks. The drop-off after that in terms of minutes is stark.

Arteta has barely rotated, yet in April told the fringe players he quite clearly doesn’t fully trust “to be prepared to play any minute in any moment”.

Nelson was the example he cited following the forward’s stunning goal in the dramatic victory over Bournemouth last March. Having made just two Premier League appearances to that point in 2022/23, in the words of Arteta he “played a few minutes and made a huge impact”.

The new contract he was given in the summer was a mistake. Nelson’s stock is never going to be higher than it was at that point, when interest was rife. Arsenal think they could make £30m with a sale now but their use of the 24-year-old suggests otherwise.

Arteta has given such an apparently valuable forward five starts this season, three of which were in the FA Cup and League Cup. The other two came in a Champions League group-stage dead-rubber against PSV, and on the only occasion Arteta has made a few changes to his usual Premier League line-up – at home to a depleted Luton side with no wins in nine.

Nelson might have been “prepared to play any minute in any moment” during a three-game winless run which has threatened to derail Arsenal’s season, but he was not even in the squad for the Aston Villa defeat and watched both legs of the Bayern quarter-final exit from the bench. Neither player nor club are even vaguely benefiting from the arrangement.

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Emile Smith Rowe
The other player Arteta seemed to be speaking to directly when challenging his squad players to make the difference was Smith Rowe. In the victory over Luton the following day, they were the two notable notable changes to what nevertheless remained a strong line-up.

Smith Rowe embraced the opportunity, forcing an own goal from Daiki Hashioka and generally impressing in what was his longest Arsenal appearance in almost exactly two years.

Arteta has highlighted Smith Rowe as one of the most important players of his entire reign in north London but the 23-year-old’s struggles with injury have coincided with Arsenal evolving perhaps quicker than most expected. One of the best players for a side hoping to qualify for the Champions League is yet to find his place in the midst of title challengers and European knockout ties.

It would be a hard and harsh decision to cut Smith Rowe loose, but that is the sort of call which has to at least be considered. Arsenal have an asset which would command plenty of interest and a respectable fee, and are barely using him otherwise.


Eddie Nketiah
The homegrown aspect is probably sparing all three young English forwards from an uncomfortable decision. Perhaps the onus is on them to force the issue, taking a nominal step down for more regular game time.

Nketiah’s season has included a first Premier League hat-trick, a Champions League debut and an England cap but it feels as though, as with Nelson, the time might have been right to part ways in the summer.

“He needs minutes, opportunities and service,” Arteta said after the forward’s Sheffield United treble in October. Since then, Nketiah has started four games and had 22 shots, from which he has scored a single goal. In the Villa and Bayern defeats, the player fourth for goals per 90 at Arsenal this season was given a grand total of nine minutes.

In truth, Nketiah has rarely felt like a natural fit in this team even when there are enough selection problems to necessitate him starting; he is a different kind of striker to those Arteta favours and that is fine. If £40m can genuinely be procured from one of the clubs lurking then take it and run in the direction of Alexander Isak. Best of luck convincing Newcastle, mind.

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Fabio Vieira
“My first instinct was to grab the ball and go, but Fabio won it and it was a good moment,” Nketiah said of his decision to allow Vieira to take a penalty in the thrashing of Sheffield United. “It’s all about being a team player. It was his time to get a chance and he tucked it away.”

Chelsea could never. But also Vieira is waiting on that next chance. While suspension and injuries have been a factor, the Portuguese has played 180 minutes since across six appearances – and 90 of those were in a League Cup defeat to West Ham.

He did assist a goal in that match, as well as in the opening weeks of the season against Fulham and Manchester United. But Vieira will take no consolation in the fact his biggest contribution to this season was in providing intel to help beat former club Porto in the Champions League.

As ever, Arteta has said all the right things about how Vieira is an “option” he values; the problem is that his actions in not using him speak a whole lot louder. He is one of those precious few recent transfer slips and the summer provides an opportunity to rectify it – not just by signing Michael Olise in his place.


Thomas Partey
As Arsenal’s chief bottler last season
, and with Juventus and Saudi Arabia lurking menacingly in the background, the summer seemed like a good time to crash the Partey and move on from a very good but ultimately limited player.

The arrival of Declan Rice made for a neat cut-off point, yet Arteta doubled down by saying he wanted players who can be used “together” but also who “can fight for their places” in the same position.

Rice has won by a landslide; even Jorginho and Kai Havertz have held their own better than Partey, whose injury problems interrupted that weird right-back experimentation period in August. Those issues seem to finally be behind the midfielder but there remains no obvious place for him in this side, nor apparently any faith he is worth calling on as a substitute.

For Arteta, who has placed so much stock in those who are perennially available, to die on the hill of a player who has proved anything but this season, is a bit weird. Any players the manager cannot trust when April hits are not worth keeping around.

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