It would be understandable for Arsenal fans to dread this next two months after what has happened in the last couple of years. Consecutive summers were largely disrupted because of the departures of key players like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie and Alex Song. Consequently it took a few months for, if we insist on using generic automobile parlance, the Gunners to get accustomed to their new vehicle, decked with modern bells and whistles including the introduction of a Spanish sat-nav from Malaga to orchestrate some kind of coherent direction, stop the spasmodic stalling and get into second and third gear. I don’t think it would be extreme to suggest Arsenal would indeed be in a ditch somewhere off the M4 if it wasn’t for Santi Cazorla’s mastery.
For the first time in what feels like living memory, the manager genuinely has money to spend and is expected to do so. The renewal of various commercial deals and the cumulated fees collected from the sale of key players has generated what the tabloids would call a ‘warchest’ for manager Arsène Wenger to use however he sees fit. With no stand-out player set to leave this summer either, it seems as if the Gunners are finally going to strengthen rather than rebuild, and can hit the ground running instead of having to claw back a tricky points deficit as has been the case in the last two years.
There is an air of stability about the club that is perhaps not the case with their rivals, as new managers have come in at Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. They will probably need time to settle and adapt to their new surroundings, so there has probably not been a more opportune moment since the stadium move for Arsenal to mount a serious title charge.
The task is to always find felicitous personnel – Wenger has been on record several times as saying he’ll only add players that will make the team stronger. That’s of course understandable but not a particularly lofty benchmark to reach in some areas of the pitch. Lukas Podolski has flattered to deceive in a central role, meaning Olivier Giroud is the club’s only established, out-and-out centre forward. At least one top quality striker needs to come in if Arsenal are to be a force next season.
They’ve already been linked with every name under the sun but the three main candidates at the time of writing are Gonzalo Higuain, Stevan Jovetic and Wayne Rooney. The latter represents an intriguing conundrum; one that is certainly worth keeping an eye on. The since-departed Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed that Rooney handed in a transfer request and therefore is hotly-tipped to leave Old Trafford, although incoming manager, David Moyes, may be able to convince him to stay.
Arsenal hold a long and fierce rivalry with Manchester United and it’s difficult to envisage any kind of deal happening between the two clubs, even though Van Persie so controversially crossed the divide last summer. Some are sceptical that Rooney is past his best or at least no longer has the fitness or desire to return to the echelons he reached in 2010 when he was voted PFA Player of the Year. But a change of scenery might be to the player’s benefit. Following Van Persie’s arrival, Rooney was no longer the main man at Old Trafford. Moving elsewhere may give him a point to prove and the ‘love’ that so many players thrive on.
Rooney’s biggest strength is perhaps also his greatest weakness. His versatility has seen him play from a wide position, central midfield, as something of a trequartista operating in the hole off another striker, or indeed as the main centre forward himself, a traditional ‘number nine.’ The aforementioned 2009/10 season proved his ability to play in the latter role, but many would argue Rooney is at his most potent drifting between the lines, picking the ball up from midfield and linking with his fellow forward players. The truth, however, is that nobody really knows where his best position is.
The ‘nine-and-a-half’ role, a Harry Potter-esque hybrid of the number nine and ten roles if you didn’t work that out, which Van Persie performed so superbly at Arsenal, is one that is difficult to master but would perhaps suit a player as technically gifted as Rooney. It would, naturally, involve being a major goal threat, but also requires the player to be able to drop into pockets of space and release those around them. Giroud has proven his ability to do the second part but is not nearly clinical enough. At this moment in time, he seems to be an ideal second-choice striker, but is not cut out (yet) to lead the line at a club that should be challenging for major honours.
Deploying such a complete, creative striker alongside direct wingers capable of efficiently putting the ball in the net like Podolski and Theo Walcott would make Arsenal a real force to be reckoned with. It gives them variety in their game, thus making them unpredictable and more difficult to handle, when some would argue in the recent past they’ve been somewhat found out. But is Rooney really the ideal, perfect candidate for this role?
To perform such a task, you need to have a near-telepathic understanding with your teammates, or at least the intelligence to know where they’re going to be at any given moment. Rooney’s harshest critics would say he lacks this and it would be particularly difficult coming into completely new surroundings and having to be the immediate fulcrum of the side. He probably only has a couple more years at the top (some would say even less) and if it takes him north of six months to adapt, it’s perhaps not the shrewdest investment Wenger and Arsenal would ever make.
Jovetic is perhaps better suited to being a complete ‘nine-and-a-half,’ or at least he should be in the near future with experience under his belt. Whilst undoubtedly a promising talent, he represents something of a gamble, being far from completely ready to take the reins at the very top level. He currently operates as a ‘number ten,’ better at linking the play than being on the end of moves himself; similar to Van Persie when he too was only 23 but there are plenty of traits in his game to suggest Jovetic is capable of emulating the Dutchman and being the ‘perfect’ centre forward further down the line. A sound investment for sure, but that’s not what Arsenal need. The time is now and like a coiled viper, they need to strike whilst the iron is hot (I’m not sure putting those two clichés together makes much sense but, alas, you get the picture).
Someone like Robert Lewandowski embodies everything the Gunners need but is something of an unrealistic target, both in terms of price and the fact he is rumoured to already be a Bayern Munich player. Therefore, it’s Higuain who would tick just about every box. At 25 he is approaching, if not already at his peak and has a record that rivals anyone in Europe – with 107 league goals in 187 games for Real Madrid.
Make no mistake, however, the Argentine is not some limited poacher that offers little else, he’s a terrific, all-round striker, capable of finding, and utilising, the space inside and outside of the box that perhaps Giroud cannot. His efficiency in front of goal cannot be ignored, converting 43% of his chances and the sheer variety of goals he scores is impressive. Nimble, yet powerful, Higuain is an effective ‘old fashioned number nine.’
He perhaps isn’t quite as effective playing deeper in the aforementioned set-up but that’s no great issue anyway. In the latter stages of the last three seasons, Wenger has opted not to play with two orthodox wide-men (some would argue Arsenal don’t have them anyway) but with a playmaker as an inverted winger, usually from the left. Cazorla was that man last season, and it was Yossi Benayoun and Nasri before him. This lopsided set-up perhaps gives Arsenal greater balance than a more free-flowing attacking format. But Higuain is very much the finished article; a player raring to go, who will guarantee goals, particularly in the Arsenal manager’s preferred system. With a desire to leave Real Madrid, he is reportedly available at a reasonable price, at least in proportion to what you will get in return. With someone like Higuain leading the line, with Giroud in reserve, Arsenal would finally have the firepower to compete, without having to rely on one individual as they’ve had to in the past.
The other area crying out for reinforcement is central midfield. Arsenal currently play a ‘double pivot’ in which two players sit deeper than their three more offensive teammates and break down opposition attacks, recycle possession and instigate attacks of their own. Throughout last season, the Gunners struggled to find the right balance. Mikel Arteta was a mainstay but went through a plethora of midfield partners; firstly Abou Diaby, who did a fine job, but his fitness was always a worry and his next injury proved to be around the corner and he expected to be ruled out until 2014. Then Jack Wilshere played alongside him and whilst his dynamism was to be admired, he lacked the positional discipline needed and left both Arteta, and the back four behind him, exposed. To the surprise of many, it was Aaron Ramsey who really stepped up and made the position his own, forming a fine understanding with the Spaniard which, one could argue, was the catalyst for Arsenal’s end-of-season resurgence.
Arteta has captained the side on many occasions and the qualities he brings to the team are plentiful and well documented. However, it could be argued that he is something of a flat-track bully; unable to really up his game against top opposition. In the Champions League he was overrun by superior opponents against Bayern Munich and AC Milan, whilst Oscar’s intelligent defensive work for Chelsea stifled the Spaniard and therefore nullified a lot of Arsenal’s attacking threat.
He is perhaps not the very best in the business but certainly good enough to be a fixture in the side. You could in fact argue that his poorer performances, which are few and far between, have come because of fatigue having been grossly overplayed. A genuine understudy for Arteta is needed, or, even better, someone to challenge him and Ramsey so that rotation is possible and they are not relied on as heavily as they currently are.
In terms of stand-out, realistic candidates, there isn’t an endless list here, although I’m sure some Football Manager experts are aware of some players that they believe will fit the bill. Wigan’s James McCarthy has been linked and would be a welcome addition to the squad, as would Yohan Cabaye of Newcastle, although he would probably command both greater wages and playing time than the young Irishman. But either would be available at a reasonable price.
The point of this piece is not to tell the manager who to buy anyway, it’s merely outlining the importance of strengthening in the right areas to ensure Arsenal can challenge again, which I believe they genuinely can with some fallout across the top teams in the league, and indeed in Europe, where Bayern Munich and Real Madrid amongst others are also undergoing managerial changes. In addition to their tangible contribution on the pitch, signing one or two big names also provides a statement of intent, which the Gunners desperately need. This summer feels like a ‘now or never’ moment. It’s time to bite the bullet and properly invest. If they don’t, they may fall away and never recover.