Exclusive: Alan Smith on Mikel Arteta, Thomas Partey, Arsenal’s striking situation and William Saliba

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LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 25: Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta before the Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium on October 25, 2020 in London, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Former Arsenal striker Alan Smith, scorer in the famous 89 victory at Anfield, Cup Winner’s Cup match winner and Sky Sports Pundit took the time to speak to 101 Great Goals. Alan gave his thoughts on plenty of topics surrounding the Gunners, including an evaluation of Mikel Arteta, the transfer window, Thomas Partey and plenty more.

How would you evaluate Arsenal under Arteta since his arrival?

“I think it has been positive. He has obviously come into the club and there has been a lot that needed changing. The culture, the attitude of the players, introducing the winning mentality, the toughness and steel, standards in training and on a matchday. He’s heading in the right direction, it is not a short fix and obviously some of the results don’t show the progress but as I say he is definitely moving in the right direction.”

Arsenal’s Spanish manager Mikel Arteta reacts during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium in London on October 25, 2020. – Leicester won the match 1-0. (Photo by Ian KINGTON / IKIMAGES / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by IAN KINGTON/IKIMAGES/AFP via Getty Images)

What did you make of the transfer window? Did Arsenal get everything they needed?

“Well the transfer window was decent in the end. They left it late but obviously Thomas Partey was a big plus and an exciting signing. What we’ve seen from him suggests he’s going to add to the midfield, add something different. A strong player that can dominate in the middle of the park, he can raid forward and get goals. Looks like a big character so that was a plus point.”

“Obviously Arsenal were also connected with Houssem Aouar from Lyon. Would have been nice to get him but seemed it was maybe a bridge too far. Whether it was the finance or Lyon’s attitude to it. Arsenal are crying out for a creative force. Aouar, maybe they saw as somebody that could fill that gap to a certain extent but at least the club have moved forward over the transfer window.”

Arsenal lost against both Manchester City and Liverpool, did you see any signs of progress in these games?

“Well I didn’t expect Arsenal to beat either Liverpool or Manchester City. It would’ve been nice obviously but there is still a big gap between Arsenal and those two teams. But going into both those games I was never nervous that it was going to be an embarrassment, a humiliation or getting thrashed. That has been the case where over the last 5, 6 maybe even 10 years where you’re never quite sure what Arsenal are going to produce against the big teams.”

“Now you’re confident Arteta is going to go in with a game plan, they’re going to be organised and they’re going to be hard to beat. That is obviously a big step forward but it just emphasised the point that there is still an awful lot of work to do and City and Liverpool are way ahead.”

How do you think Arteta will look to solve the creativity problem that is growing inside the club?

“There is a lack of creativity and we saw that against Leicester and that is worrying because over the years you’ve never really worried about Arsenal not scoring or creating chances but all of a sudden they have become a little blunt. I think that is a result of Arteta trying to stiffen up the team first and foremost, to achieve more clean sheets and be harder to beat as I’ve said. When that happens sometimes you do lose something going forward.”

“In terms of creativity, I think Partey will add to it, and it is up to everybody to chip in if they can. We don’t have an Ozil or a Santi Cazorla. Someone who can unlock the door as it were, so it is not an ideal situation but they are going to have to get round it in a different way.”

What are your thoughts on Nicolas Pepe? How concerned should the fans be about his lack of output?

“Well Nicolas Pepe is a problem in a way because he cost so much money. To a certain extent you’re under a little bit of pressure to play him even if you don’t start him. He has disappointed, I was hoping in his second season that he would kick on. Clearly Arsenal paid far too much money for him. Willian has been brought in who can play on the right-hand side although he is a much different player, but much more reliable.”

“We’ve seen in little glimpses that he can be exciting, he can turn a game. However, he’s got to bring more consistency to his game and I just hope that can happen in an Arsenal shirt.”

Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe (left) celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game with team-mates during the Premier League match at The Emirates Stadium, London. (Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Striking-wise, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Nketiah have been played there but who should be chosen and who should support the number 9?

“Well the centre-forward position is becoming a bit of a problem. I’ve always been a fan of Lacazette but increasingly I wonder whether he is going to fill that gap now. Aubameyang I still think he is better served on the left coming in because he isn’t a back to goal sort of player. Eddie Nketiah is still very young and cant carry that weight of responsibility week in week out. Martinelli is obviously a big talent and we’ve got to wait for him to come back from injury.”

“In an ideal world you’d want to go out and spend top money on a great centre-forward but we know Arsenal aren’t in a position to be able to do that. This is the area of the pitch that could hold the Gunners back this season, a lack of firepower, which I never thought I would find myself saying. All their competitors have got more strength in depth. They have got better strike forces as good as Aubameyang is. So again, that is something that Arteta has got to work against.”

William Saliba has not featured for the Gunners. Are you surprised at how little he’s been used?

“Well William Saliba is clearly a player of great potential but the coaches look at him day in and day out. And they have obviously seen something which suggests he is not ready yet. I think it is probably a physical concern or reason for him not being ready. It might help that he went out on loan to play week in and week out to gain the wiry strength that you need for this level of football. He is one for the future, young lad, a cultured footballer but he is going to need 12 months of action to reach the levels that he needs to.”

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ST ALBANS, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 13: William Saliba of Arsenal during a training session at London Colney on September 13, 2019 in St Albans, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

What are your expectations for Arsenal this season having seen 6 matches with 3 wins and 3 losses?

“From day 1 is to get into the top 4, Champions League qualification. I think that would be one heck of a result having finished 8th last season and lacking all sorts of things. But it is going to be difficult. We have seen Manchester United have been up and down but they have strength in depth. Chelsea are showing signs of getting their act together, Spurs as well so it will be a tough race for that top 4. For Arteta it is about improvement, if that means finishing 5th or 6th and having a solid dependable campaign then so be it.” 

“Maybe a trophy along the way, he has already picked up the FA Cup. Never rule that out. It is achieving that consistency as much as anything, building blocks and moving the club in the right direction.”

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Premier League table

# Team MP D P
1 Everton FC 6 5 13
2 Liverpool FC 6 1 13
3 Aston Villa FC 5 7 12
4 Leicester City FC 6 5 12
5 Tottenham Hotspur FC 6 8 11
6 Leeds United 6 3 10
7 Southampton FC 6 1 10
8 Crystal Palace FC 6 -1 10
9 Wolverhampton Wanderers FC 6 -2 10
10 Chelsea FC 6 4 9
11 Arsenal FC 6 1 9
12 West Ham United FC 6 4 8
13 Manchester City FC 5 0 8
14 Newcastle United FC 6 -2 8
15 Manchester United FC 5 -3 7
16 Brighton & Hove Albion FC 6 -2 5
17 West Bromwich Albion 6 -8 3
18 Burnley FC 5 -6 1
19 Sheffield United FC 6 -6 1
20 Fulham FC 6 -9 1
Player Team Goals
Son, Heung Min Tottenham Hotspur FC 8
Calvert-Lewin, Dominic Everton FC 7
Salah, Mohamed Liverpool FC 6
Vardy, Jamie Leicester City FC 6
Bamford, Patrick Leeds United 6
Kane, Harry Tottenham Hotspur FC 5
Zaha, Wilfried Crystal Palace FC 5
Ings, Danny Southampton FC 4
Wilson, Callum Newcastle United FC 4
Mane, Sadio Liverpool FC 4
Maupay, Neal Brighton & Hove Albion FC 4
Jimenez, Raul Wolverhampton Wanderers FC 4
Rodriguez, James Everton FC 3
Grealish, Jack Aston Villa FC 3
Jorginho Chelsea FC 3
Fernandes, Bruno Manchester United FC 3
Watkins, Ollie Aston Villa FC 3
Antonio, Michail West Ham United FC 3
Lacazette, Alexandre Arsenal FC 3
Bowen, Jarrod West Ham United FC 3

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