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How Arsenal could line-up after Arteta’s cull leaves Gunners with just 20 senior stars as they chase Champions League

THREE weeks ago, Arsenal had too few players to fulfill the North London derby.

Now, deliberately, they have the smallest squad in the Premier League.

This is arguably Arsenal’s strongest starting XI for the second half of the season
Mikel Arteta has just 20 senior players to navigate the final 17 games

But nothing sums up Mikel Arteta’s Gunners gamble more starkly than the decision to allow striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to join Barcelona on a free transfer.

Letting the unwanted star walk out on the last 18 months of his £350,000-a-week contract allowed Arteta to avoid a repeat of the Mesut Ozil debacle that dogged the first year of his reign.

As well as Aubameyang’s move, the club also allowed Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac to leave on free transfers, with Pablo Mari, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Folarin Balogun among 11 loan departures.

The staggering 16 players leaving last month has shaved an estimated £32million off the annual wage bill, now thought to be below £90m.

That is welcome, with owner Stan Kroenke still more interested in funding his US sporting empire and expectations that Arsenal’s account for last season will show losses in excess of £100m.

But with Champions League football now worth £43m for Arsenal before they have even kicked a ball, returning to Europe’s elite is a huge financial carrot.


And the outgoings have left Arteta with a squad of just 18 outfield players, in addition to keepers Aaron Ramsdale and Bernd Leno, most of whom are currently with him in Dubai for warm-weather training in the Gulf.

Take out top scorer Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, who have scored eight and six respectively, the remaining players have just 15 Prem goals between them this season.

Aubameyang’s old strike partner Alexandre Lacazette, whose contract is up at the end of the season, has found the net just three times, while England Under-21 ace Eddie Nketiah has not even started a Prem match since April.

The lack of January signings, plus Auba leaving, came at the end of a rocky month for the Gunners — one that could prove pivotal in making or breaking their top-four hopes.

December had ended with Arsenal on a roll, after Arteta made the big call to drop Aubameyang from the squad.

There were four straight wins in the Premier League, with 14 goals scored and a solitary penalty at Leeds conceded, taking them up to fourth place in the table.

With West Ham’s early season exertions catching up with them and Tottenham and Manchester United still far from convincing, many Gunners fans believed they were on course for a return to the Champions League after a four-year absence.


Fast forward to the start of February, though, and things look somewhat different.

Going out of both domestic cups was a disappointment rather than devastation.

Admittedly, the performance at Nottingham Forest was anaemic and the gritty ten-man display to draw the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg at Liverpool was swiftly forgotten a week later.

But the excitement of the first 45 minutes against Manchester City meant nothing in the final analysis.

And, after that game at Spurs was controversially called off, the dour, dire draw with bottom-of-the-table Burnley saw Arteta’s team booed off and back down to sixth, having played more matches than all of their top-four rivals.

Over that month, five games brought a single goal, in the first half of that opening match against City on New Year’s Day.

Arsenal do have fewer matches to play, with just the remaining 17 Prem clashes spread over the next 110 days.

That will ease the physical and mental strain, which appeared to be taking its toll against Burnley.

Arteta does now appear to have a settled first XI and will be hoping the lower number of games will allow a consistency of selection.


But it means the impact of injuries, suspensions — here’s looking at you, Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey — and, perhaps, Covid will be more severe, leaving Arteta having to use players in the ‘red zone’ or promote from the youth ranks ahead of time.

The positive, perhaps, is that Arsenal’s rivals have not necessarily improved in the window, either.

Antonio Conte got two he wanted in at Spurs, with Juventus pair Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski arriving, but also saw Dele Alli, record signing Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso departing.

Spurs still lack the right wing-back which was understood to be Conte’s priority, a midfield passer and a genuine back-up for Harry Kane.

West Ham’s squad is exactly what it was on January 1, while United let Anthony Martial leave on loan and Mason Greenwood will not be playing following his arrest on suspicion of rape and assault.

Yet Arteta knows he is the one under scrutiny, especially after deciding to send Aubameyang into exile.

Just imagine how the Emirates will react if they draw a blank against Everton on the last day of the season, when a win would be enough for fourth.

This is a huge punt.

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