Arsenal’s January transfer window dilemma: Vieira and Lokonga’s struggles raise questions about strength in depth
The Gunners are riding high at the top of the Premier League but do they really have a strong enough squad to mount a title challenge?
It is always easy after a defeat to focus on the negative and to look for the areas where things can be improved.
And that’s exactly what happened after a much-changed Arsenal side were beaten 3-1 by Brighton in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night.
Arsenal’s first of the season at the Emirates Stadium immediately raised questions about the strength of the squad Mikel Arteta has available to him.
“We know where we are,” said the Arsenal manager. “We knew when we had some injuries that the squad is very, very short. We have tried to deal with that in the best possible way.
“I always said from day one that we have a small squad. It’s nothing new. I said it the next day [summer] transfer window open.”
Arsenal’s success in the early stages of the season has been built around a starting XI that rarely changes.
Arteta has had some injuries to deal with, such as the one that kept Oleksandr Zinchenko out for over a month, but on the whole he hasn’t had to tinker too much with the team he has to field in the Premier League.
And it has helped the Gunners to the best start to a league season in the club’s history, with 11 wins from their opening 13 games.
But when Arteta has switched around in the Europa League and in the Carabao Cup, it hasn’t been quite so smooth.
The Gunners topped their group in Europe and only tasted defeat once, going down 2-0 to PSV Eindhoven, but the drop in quality in some areas has been evident.
And that was evident once again on Wednesday when Brighton came out on top at the Emirates Stadium.
While Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson impressed, others struggled, with summer signing Fabio Vieira perhaps the most notable player to underperform.
The Portuguese playmaker made a fine start to life at Arsenal following his £34m ($40m) move from Porto, scoring against Brentford on his full Premier League debut and catching the eye in his early Europa League appearances.
But he has looked way off the pace of late and endured a miserable night against Brighton before being substituted midway through the second half.
“I think in front of goal he has been a bit unlucky because in the last two games he could have scored a few times,” Arteta said.
“Every new player needs time to adapt and play. Obviously, when he played against Brentford and he was surrounded by players he’s been more familiar with, it was a bit easier.
“We have asked him to play in different positions also because of the needs we have in the squad. I am not worried at all.”
Arteta is right not to care about Vieira.
It is far too early to write off the 22-year-old and he showed enough quality in his early performances to suggest he can make the grade in north London.
Arteta also believes the upcoming World Cup break could be his young playmaker.
“I think that period will do him very well,” the Gunners boss said, pointing to Arsenal’s warm-weather training camp in Dubai next month.
The problem, however, is if Vieira does not find his best form and his adaptation period drags on longer than expected.
If so, Arsenal’s chances of really pushing on in the second half of the season could suffer.
With the fixture list as demanding as it is post-World Cup, Arteta will need his squad players to step up and provide real competition for his regular starters.
Vieira cost big money last summer. He must become a viable alternative to Martin Odegaard or Granit Xhaka.
The same goes for Sambi Lokonga, who has yet to make an impact since his £18m ($21m) move from Anderlecht in 2021.
Arsenal thus face something of a dilemma.
They have invested heavily in the likes of Vieira and Lokonga in recent years and while young players must be given time to develop, they must also show that they are progressing and are worthy of their place in the squad – as Arteta needs players he can trust to step in when needed.
January will give Arsenal another opportunity to strengthen and it could be the most important winter window they have faced in years.
Arsenal will go in as title contenders and with Champions League qualification in their sights. But with such a long and congested fixture list ahead of them, they must decide whether to stick or twist when it comes to their squad.
Will the likes of Vieira, Lokonga and Marquinhos be enough to get them over the line?
Or do they need to push the boat out and try to sign long-term targets like Danilo from Palmeiras, Youri Tielemans at Leicester or Shakhtar Donetsk’s Mykhailo Mudryk?
Arteta says Arsenal come into the window with “all options open” to them when it comes to strengthening their squad.
“If we can improve the team, we will always try to do that as a club,” he said on Friday afternoon.
There is no doubt that some big decisions will have to be made at Arsenal as January approaches.
And whatever is decided will determine how the second half of the campaign plays out in north London.