Arsenal legends Keown and Adams go head-to-head: but who's right?

Arsenal legends Keown and Adams go head-to-head: One thinks Odegaard has restored Wenger’s creative flair, while the other says Arteta should have signed ‘strong defenders’… so, who’s right?

  • Sportsmail’s Martin Keown praised likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe
  • He believes not since Arsene Wenger’s days have Arsenal been so creative 
  • Tony Adams, however, said the signing of Martin Odegaard was not necessary 
  • He said ‘strong defenders’ should have come in, not Willian and Nicolas Pepe  

Martin Keown and Tony Adams were united on the pitch as tough-tackling, top-class central defenders, but the duo are now separated by very contrasting views on the current Arsenal side.

Sportsmail columnist Keown believes creative flair has been restored at the north London club to the levels achieved under Arsene Wenger, thanks to the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Dani Ceballos.

The former defender said that neither Unai Emery nor Arteta – up until this point –  have had the luxury of so many technical players capable of interchanging and providing reliable service to the strikers.

Arsenal enjoyed a big win over Leeds last week – but that has sparked a debate over the team

Martin Keown (left) believes the creative flair seen under Arsene Wenger has been restored but fellow Gunners legend Tony Adams (right) has slammed recent attacking signings

Wenger on the other hand benefited from having Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil – to name but a few – at his disposal during his 22-year tenure.

However, fellow former Gunners centre back Adams slammed the decision to sign of some of the current creative talents instead of ‘strong defenders’, with Odegaard and wingers Nicolas Pepe and Willian all coming under scrutiny.

The former Arsenal skipper suggested there was an argument that Odegaard was not needed, while admitting he was ‘annoyed’ the club spent a club-record £72million on Ivorian Pepe and handed Willian a £220,000-a-week contract.

But which of the Gunners legends is right? Sportsmail takes a look at the ex-defenders’ verdicts and decides who has the most convincing argument… 

What did Martin Keown say?

Writing for Sportsmail after Arsenal’s 4-2 victory against Leeds on Sunday, Keown praised the Gunners for forcing Marcelo Bielsa’s side into mistakes through their high press.

The ex-Arsenal defender was impressed by Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard and Ceballos, stating: ‘They can all create and there was a good message to press high collectively. Arsenal made Leeds look quite ordinary for most of this match because of that.’

He therefore stated that not since the days when former boss Wenger used to pack as much creativity into his midfield as possible has such vibrancy and verve been seen in the centre of the park.

And particularly after their pressing not only cut off avenues for Leeds for the first hour of the match but allowed chances to be created almost at will, Keown’s argument that such a philosophy has made its return does appear convincing.

Keown praised Martin Odegaard (left) and Bukayo Saka after Arsenal’s win against Leeds

The Gunners’ woes regarding chance creativity were well documented in the first half of the season, but the introduction of Smith Rowe into the side following his first start of the season on Boxing Day in the win against Chelsea appears to have rectified the issue.

Statistics from Opta also appear to support that argument, with the Gunners managing just 161 shots in the Premier League in the 14 matches between the first game of the season and Boxing Day, at an average of 10.73 per game.

However, since December 26 the following 10 top-flight matches have seen Arteta’s side create 125 chances at an average of 13.89 per game.

In their first 14 Premier League matches of the season, Arsenal managed just 53 shots on target at an average of 3.53 per game, but since then they have had 44 shots on target at an average of 4.89.

Keown said the duo, as well as Dani Ceballos (left) and Emile Smith Rowe are all creative

Their expected goals tally per game has also increased from 1.18 to 1.63.

The statistics may only point at a minor improvement if current trends continue, but Smith Rowe and Saka’s personal statistics show their impact cannot be denied.

England international Saka has created the most chances of any Arsenal player this season with 26, 16 of which have come since Boxing Day, with five having been converted into goals along with the three times he has found the net himself. 

Ceballos comes fifth on the list with 18 for chances created, and while just two of those have been scored, he has largely played second fiddle to Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka when they have been available.

Meanwhile, in his first season as a Gunners regular, Smith Rowe has created 16 goalscoring opportunities – the most of any of his team-mates since he made his first start of the season on Boxing Day – and recorded four assists along the way. 

Mikel Arteta’s men struggled to create chances in first half of the season but they are improved

The 20-year-old has looked leggy and rather fatigued in recent weeks, though his assist – whether he meant it or not – for Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang’s third goal against Leeds demonstrates he can still have the desired impact. 

Meanwhile, Odegaard only made his first Gunners start against Leeds having featured from the bench against Manchester United and Aston Villa. 

The Norway international, 22, showed some nice touches against Leeds and could have scored at Villa Park, but the early signs appear encouraging as he regains the competitive edge that comes with playing regularly and suggests he will be more of a successful loan signing than a Denis Suarez or Kim Kallstrom.

The current midfield stars of course still have a long way to go before they can earn a comparison with predecessors Fabregas, Ramsey, Ozil and Rosicky.

But the creative deficiency that has plagued Arsenal this season appears on its way to being resolved, as Arteta continues to impose his blueprint on the current set-up in his rebuild.

There was a note of caution, however, from Keown, after the 1-1 Europa League draw with Benfica on Thursday night.

Keown admitted that he has ‘reservations’ about Odegaard’s role in the team. The game saw Odegaard take up the No 10 role while Smith Rowe was once again pushed out wide to the left wing.

‘The reservations I have is Smith Rowe was playing especially well in that position,’ Keown said on BT Sport.

‘Now, perhaps he [Arteta] didn’t feel he was getting enough from [Nicolas] Pepe defensively so Smith Rowe’s gone into that position.

‘Now you’ve got Saka and Smith Rowe in wide positions. They have really good movement, tuck inside nicely, they give that space for the full backs to get wide and they know when to press.

‘But maybe they lose a little bit, for the time being, until Odegaard is ready to match speed.’ 

They still have a way to go to match forebearers Tomas Rosicky, Alex Hleb and Cesc Fabregas

What did Tony Adams say? 

Arsenal’s recruitment has come under heavy fire ever since the latter years of Wenger’s reign, and the latest attack on that policy has come from Adams.

The 54-year-old suggested that the loan signing of Odegaard in January was not necessary, but his main gripe came with the purchases of Nicolas Pepe and Willian over what he deems a more pressing need in the form of central defenders.

The former England defender said: ‘I got so annoyed that we bought Pepe and Willian in when you’ve got two kids [Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka] bursting into the team.

‘There’s other areas in the team that you could look at, there’s holes in that team, we saw how fragile they are defensively. The defence has always been the weak link.

Adams, however, believes that the signing of Odegaard was not a necessary investment

‘As the sporting director of Arsenal, you wouldn’t be getting Odegaard in, you’d be getting good, strong defenders into the team instead.’  

The statistics certainly support Adams to a certain extent when it comes to the Ivory Coast and Brazil stars. Pepe has scored just four Premier League goals from 16 appearances this season, and has failed to record a top-flight assist in 2020-21, having created just six chances.

Willian, meanwhile, has yet to find the net for the Gunners in any competition since moving on a free transfer from Chelsea, and has recorded just one assist since setting up two goals in Arsenal’s 3-0 win against Fulham on the opening weekend of the season.

But there was little evidence to suggest both would struggle to quite the extent that they have done, with Pepe coveted by other European giants, and offered the opportunity to sign a player who had been excellent for Lille in Ligue 1 to plug a hole that was apparent in 2019, the Gunners hierarchy were never likely to turn it down. 

Adams also criticised the decisions to sign Nicolas Pepe (left) and Willian (right)

Moreover, few could have predicted that Saka would feel at home so quickly in the first team in the season following Pepe’s arrival, having made just a couple of substitute appearances for Arsenal in 2018/19. 

The 19-year-old was expected to follow the likes of Smith Rowe out on loan but so stunning were his Europa League performances that he grew from strength to strength.

Meanwhile, Smith Rowe continued to suffer injuries and there was growing concern regarding the frequency with which the midfielder was breaking down, and it is that previous record and his age which suggested Arsenal needed back up for the youngster in the form of Odegaard.

Few better options appeared viable in last month’s transfer market and the victory against Leeds demonstrated that the duo can play in the same side together given their interchanging movements, and the Norwegian could well improve once he builds up his fitness and adapts to the league.

Few saw Saka adapting so quickly to the first-team picture after Pepe had been signed

No such defence appears to be forthcoming for Willian, and technical director Edu and Arteta may soon be forced to hold their hands up in recruiting a player who has long adapted to English football and was seen as a player who would hit the ground running.

But Pepe has looked far more dangerous recently when deployed on the left-hand side of the attack, netting in two of his last three Premier League games, suggesting he could yet have a pivotal role in Arteta’s side. 

Adams’ also highlighted his preference for the Gunners to have signed ‘good, strong defenders’ instead of the aforementioned attacking trio. But the Gunners have made significant steps in that regard too, having brought in £22m Brazilian Gabriel Magalhaes last summer.

Alongside the experience of compatriot David Luiz, Gabriel has put in a number of strong, commanding and physical performances at the back this season, and delivered another such display against Leeds following a few recent shaky outings. 

Arsenal have invested in defenders too, with Gabriel (right) playing well alongside David Luiz

No Arsenal centre back has made more recoveries than the 23-year-old, and no defender has a better aerial duels won percentage than his 62 per cent. 

Pablo Mari – signed in January 2020 on loan from Flamengo before the move was made permanent in the summer – also built up a solid understanding with the equally impressive Rob Holding during the festive period, and added calmness and assuredness to the backline before suffering his latest injury.

Moreover, young defenders William Saliba – a £27m summer recruit in 2019 – and Dinos Mavropanos could well be introduced into the fold next season, with the duo currently impressing out on loan at Nice and Stuttgart respectively. 

Saliba made clear his displeasure at his lack of opportunities at Arsenal before leaving on loan, however, and the outspoken attacks on Arteta’s methods mean there are bridges to build, as well as points to prove.

Despite the number of centre-back combinations Arteta has been forced to deploy due to injuries and suspensions, only Manchester City, Chelsea and Aston Villa have conceded fewer goals in the Premier League this season. 

William Saliba, out on loan at Nice, will also get his chance to stake his claim next season

Arteta may well look to strengthen his central defence if he can find the profile of player he wants, particularly with Luiz’s deal up in the summer, although that defender will not be Dayot Upamecano after his move to Bayern Munich was confirmed.

Numbers were also an issue at the start of the season, with Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi also on the books before their January departures, while Calum Chambers is also working himself back to fitness.

Had the Gunners had any further defenders among their ranks, the precarity of a situation of having more than eight centre backs vying for two spots would have been even more untenable. 

The Gunners still have work to do at the back with Bernd Leno keeping clean sheets in just a third of the games so far this campaign, and January exits were an acknowledgement of that. 

But suggestions the Gunners have neglected bringing in defenders who have provided the backline with further resolve in favour of cramming the squad with attacking talent appear wide of the mark.

Rob Holding (second from left) and Pablo Mari (right) were also in good form over Christmas


Both arguments from the Gunners legends certainly have their merits, with Adams not the first to criticise a questionable transfer strategy in north London.

But Keown’s optimism also seems well placed given the lack of spark that bedevilled Arsenal at the start of the season, and with the players providing the energy yet to hit their peak, the signs are positive for Arteta.

Whether Odegaard and Ceballos’ moves from Real Madrid are made permanent remains to be seen, but Arteta appears more relaxed in the Gunners’ ability to create chances for Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front.

There remain question marks, however, about how best to blend the club’s young talents together so as not to stifle any of their creative powers. 

The Gunners have, however, also looked to the future in defence with Gabriel and Saliba possessing the potential to form an incredibly exciting partnership at the heart of the defence for many years to come. Providing Saliba proves to Arteta he has changed his attitide, that is.

Keown’s optimism seems well placed given Saka and Smith Rowe’s recent performances

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