August 25, 2011 17 Comments
In the wake of Arsenal‘s euphoric 3-1 aggregate victory over Udinese, manager Arsène Wenger now faces the equally testing challenge of signing reinforcements for a squad which has seen more outgoings than incomings this summer. With a transfer fund at his disposal which reports put at anywhere between £65m (mildly pessimistic) and £100m (wildly optimistic), the usually parsimonious Wenger has an unprecedented opportunity to add revamp his side in one fell swoop. But how many players should he buy, and where should he seek to strengthen?
It has been a summer of turmoil at the Emirates like no other in recent history. Arsenal fans are accustomed to off-season transfer sagas revolving around their top players – before Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri there was Juventus’s pursuit of Patrick Vieira, Barcelona’s wooing of Thierry Henry and the malcontent mercenary that is Emmanuel Adebayor. But never have Wenger’s decisions been scrutinised – and criticised – so vociferously, and never before has there been such a revolving door of player movements. Over the course of the summer the squad has been stripped of both quality (Fàbregas, Nasri, Gaël Clichy) and depth (Emmanuel Eboué, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and loanees Denilson, Carlos Vela and Kyle Bartley). And of Wenger’s four signings to date, two – winger Gervinho and right back Carl Jenkinson – have already been blooded, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell sure to see action (at least in the Carling Cup) sooner rather than later.
But with a sackful of money (potential sellers will be rubbing their hands together with glee) and just one week to spend it (ditto), Wenger is unlikely to flood his dressing room with a rush of new names which will take time to integrate and will hinder the progress of up-and-coming youngsters such as Emmanuel Frimpong. So what can we realistically expect from him before the transfer window closes next Wednesday?
At the end of last season many pundits identified this as a key area of need. Manuel Almunia may well be at the front of the queue for the exit, but with Wojciech Szczęsny growing in stature and exuding confidence and Łukasz Fabiański a capable and experienced backup, Arsenal appear more settled in their last line of defence than at any time since Jens Lehmann’s peak years. Szczęsny will commit errors from time to time – we should not expect perfection from such a young keeper – but has already demonstrated the talent and the mindset necessary to shrug off any setbacks.
It is difficult to see Fabiański settling for warming the bench behind his younger compatriot beyond this season – as an international with 18 caps he will surely need first team football somewhere – but that is a problem for next year, not this one.
Verdict: No activity, other than Almunia returning to Spain.
Injuries and the development of young players mask the fact that the nucleus of a good group already exists. On the flanks, Carl Jenkinson already looks to be a capable deputy for Bacary Sagna, while it is unlikely that Wenger will seek further cover for the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs beyond Armand Traoré.
Any new defensive signing will be a central player of substance, although whether this will be a ready-made partner for Thomas Vermaelen or a capable backup to enhance bench strength – which is currently provided by the brittle and inconsistent Johan Djourou, the seeimgly out-of-favour Sébastien Squillaci and youngster Ignasi Miquel - is less clear. We’ve all heard the links to Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka – my preference would be for the former, who is 25 rather than 29 – but Scott Dann or Christopher Samba are also distinct possibilities who would bring both a physical presence and valuable Premier League experience.
Verdict: Expect one arrival, but it may be a squad player rather than a starter.
There are two distinct needs here – a holding player and a creative one. In the holding role, Arsenal have been closely linked to Rennes’ 21-year old Yann M’Vila in recent days. Six foot tall and physically imposing, he could provide steel to a midfield which has too often been lightweight in recent years. Rather than being a replacement for Alex Song, I would see him forming half of a midfield anchor pairing with Song (or Emmanuel Frimpong when the Cameroon international is called away to the Africa Cup of Nations), with Jack Wilshere taking the creative role in front of them.
In Wilshere’s absence Aaron Ramsey has appeared ill at ease being used as the creative fulcrum of the side. Tomáš Rosický or Andrey Arshavin could also fill in, although neither is ideal. Some genuine quality here would be most welcome – although it appears that an enquiry to Lille about Eden Hazard has been firmly rebuffed – but my suspicion is that Wenger will hope that Wilshere can stay fit and make do with what he already has when he is not.
Verdict: Wenger will strengthen one or the other, but probably not both. With a better defensive screen vital, I would focus on M’Vila to ensure depth in the critical holding role(s).
One of the reasons I think Wenger may pass on adding another creative central option is my perception that he is placing a greater emphasis on creating chances from wide positions this season. He already has the fitfully brilliant Theo Walcott and Gervinho has already shown signs of settling in immediately. Rosický and Arshavin can provide plenty of experience off the bench (as can the perenially injured Abou Diaby), while Ryo Miyaichi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are more youthful and pacy alternatives. Gervinho’s former teammate Eden Hazard would be an ideal fit as he can play both centrally and out wide but, having already lost the Ivorian, Lille are understandably reluctant to sell so late in the window.
With early summer target Juan Mata now at Chelsea, I suspect Wenger is happy to stay with the balance of experience and youth he already has – although, like Song, he will lose Gervinho for the duration of the Africa Cup of Nations – with depth not a major issue here.
Verdict: Possible but unlikely, unless a star name becomes available. Well-stocked with both youth and experience.
Although new captain Robin van Persie is nothing short of world-class when fit and on form, he has never made more than 28 league appearances in a single season for Arsenal, and has played fewer than half the games in two of the past four years. With Nicklas Bendtner agitating for a move and Marouane Chamakh bereft of goals and confidence, an injury to the skipper could leave Arsenal dangerously short of a central striker who can lead the line effectively. Walcott, for all his pace and goalscoring ability, is not that kind of player, and neither is the on-loan Carlos Vela.
Recent reports have linked Arsenal with a move for 24-year old Lazio and Argentina striker Mauro Zárate, who had an undistinguished load spell at Birmingham three years ago. At just 5-foot-9 and with a record of less than a goal every four games for Lazio, he is not an obvious solution for the problem. One obvious candidate who is, however, will never return to the club he left in acrimonious circumstances two years ago: Emmanuel Adebayor, who is currently surplus to requirements at Manchester City and seems most likely to move to Tottenham if he stays in the Premier League. Wenger may choose to stick with what he has, hoping that either Bendtner stays for another year or Chamakh regains his form, and relying on Walcott, Gervinho or Joel Campbell in the event of injuries.
Verdict: Essential if Bendtner departs, otherwise only a nice-to-have third priority after a defender and a midfielder, with a purchase only taking place if it is for a top-class finisher.
Of course, there is no knowing for sure what the team will look like on September 1st, but here’s my view of the likely starting XI, based on my own assumption that Arsenal will sign Cahill and M’Vila.
Sagna – Cahill – Vermaelen – Gibbs
Song – M’Vila
Gervinho – van Persie – Walcott
With a Carling Cup/second XI of:
Jenkinson – Djourou/Miquel – Koscielny/Squillaci – Traoré
Frimpong/Eastmond – Ramsey
Oxlade-Chamberlain/Campbell – Bendtner/Chamakh – Arshavin/Miyaichi
Of course, I would love it if the club were able to add more than just those two players, but Wenger’s belief in his squad and the limited timescales make a last-minute spree unlikely – although I would not be surprised if he picked up a couple of handy squad players to improve cover in key positions. Anything less than two more signings will be a major disappointment. However, if Arsène wants to break open the piggy bank to throw Eden Hazard and one or two others into the mix as well, I won’t complain.
Hold on to your hats – it’s going to be an interesting week.