Arsenal’s January transfer window dilemma: Vieira and Lokonga raise questions over Arteta’s 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 sustain a title challenge?

It’s always easy after a defeat to focus on the negatives 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 Emirates Stadium immediately raised questions about the strength of the squad Mikel Arteta has available to him.

“We know where we are,” the Arsenal manager said. “We knew the moment that we had certain injuries that the squad is very, very short. We have tried to manage 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 day after the [summer] transfer window opened.”

Arsenal’s success during 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 sidelined for over a month, but on the whole he has not had to tinker too much with the team he has to put out in the Premier League.

And that has helped the Gunners to the best start to a league season in the club’s history, with 11 wins coming from their first 13 games.

But when Arteta has shifted things round in the Europa League and in the Carabao Cup, things have not gone quite so smoothly.

The Gunners did top their group in Europe and only tasted defeat once, going down 2-0 at PSV Eindhoven, but the drop off in quality in certain areas has been clear.

And that was evident once again on Wednesday when Brighton came out on top at 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 had a fine start to life at Arsenal following his £34 million ($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 he endured a miserable night against Brighton before being replaced midway through the second half.

“I think in front of goal he’s been a little 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 to play. Obviously, when he played against Brentford and he was surrounded with players he’s been more familiar with, it was a little bit easier. 

“We have asked him to play in different positions as well because of the needs we have in the squad. I’m not worried at all.”

Fabio Vieira quote Arteta

Arteta is right not to be concerned about Vieira. 

It’s far too early to write off the 22-year-old and he showed enough quality during his early appearances to suggest he can make the grade in north London.

Arteta also believes the upcoming break during the World Cup could be the making of his young playmaker.

“I think that period is going to make him very good,” the Gunners boss said, pointing to the warm-weather training camp that Arsenal have coming up in Dubai next month.

The issue is, however, is if Vieira doesn’t find his best form and his adaptation period drags on longer than expected.

If that is the case, then Arsenal’s chances of really pushing on during the second half of the season could suffer. 

With the fixture list as demanding as it is following the World Cup, Arteta is going to need his squad players to step up and provide real competition for his regular starters.

Vieira cost big money last summer. He has to become a viable alternative to Martin Odegaard or Granit Xhaka.

The same goes for Sambi Lokonga, who has yet to really make an impact since his £18m ($21m) move from Anderlecht in 2021.

Sambi Lokonga

Arsenal, then, are facing 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 also need to show they are progressing and are worth their place in the squad – because Arteta needs players he can rely on to step in when needed.

January will provide Arsenal with another opportunity to strengthen and it could be the most important winter window they have faced in years.

Arsenal will enter it as title contenders and with Champions League qualification very much in their sights. But with such a lengthy and congested fixture list ahead of them, they have to 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 such as Danilo of Palmeiras, Youri Tielemans at Leicester or Shakhtar Donetsk’s Mykhailo Mudryk?

Arteta says Arsenal will head 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 be looking to do that as a club,” he stated on Friday afternoon.

There is no doubt that some big decisions need to be made at Arsenal with January beginning to loom large. 

And whatever is decided will go a long way to determining how the second half of the campaign plays out in north London.

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