It’s a bit funny, that after a summer of such excitement and drama and comings and goings and good and bad and ugly; after all the speculation and hope; the feverish anticipation; and endless prophecies and predictions, Arsenal have actually opened the season with two perfectly unremarkable 0-0 draws.
It’s an odd feeling. Kind of like turning up to the Playboy mansion to find the cast of “Golden Girls” serving up tea and scones.
I suppose it’s because over the past five or six years our beloved Gunners have developed something of a reputation for producing “unusual” performances—we win when we’re not supposed to, we lose when we’re not supposed to—and thus we have evolved to expect the unexpected.
Not this season, apparently. Which is wonderful.
In the past the Gunners’ team was built on a foundation of youth and energy and we both reaped the rewards and accepted the consequences of that foundation.
Flair and spontaneous brilliance and team synchronicity was familiar, but so too were those follies of the young: rash decision-making; over-zealousness; a tendency to lose concentration and sight of the collective team goals; and those underlying, oft-repeated adjectives—“developing”, “promising”, “maturing”—which are really just polite euphemisms for a team which had gleaming technical and attacking skills, but lacked the solid, condensed mental core of champions.
No longer. After years of crying out for more experienced and influential players, the Gunners are heading into a season, finally, in which nine of the 11 first-choice players are 24 or older.
This is an important number, both in the context of the season ahead, and—possibly more pertinently in the short-term—with regard to the transfer window, which shuts in three days’ time now and into which Arsene Wenger has cryptically suggested he might dip his big toe.
Their composed start to the season suggests that the Gunners will not be quite as directionless this year as they have been going into past seasons. This means that any purchases Wenger could possibly make during what is left of the window will, as far as I can tell, be decided by four criteria.
1: What is a “need” of the team?
2: Which available players can fulfil that “need”?
3: Are the players available also affordable to us?
4: How would the overall balance of the team be affected if that player was purchased?
In an assessment of the Arsenal, there appears to be a general consensus that there are three areas the Gunners could look at bolstering.
The first is a supposedly shallow and inexperienced defense, which could suffer should we sustain long-term injuries on either defensive flank or to a first-choice centre-back.
The second is the defensive midfielder role, which I am getting sick of typing. This area has been identified as one of need because Arsenal’s most defensive-minded midfielder Alex Song has been sold.
There seems to be a prevalent opinion that if a piece of the puzzle goes missing, you have to instantly replace it with a piece that resembles the lost piece’s shape and role as closely as possible.
This is silly, because it appears that Wenger is building an entirely different puzzle to the one Alex Song happened to be in, and even when Wenger was doing the puzzle that needed the Alex Song piece, the Alex Song piece kept getting lost under the couch anyway.
Finally, the position of striker has been identified as a position of utmost weakness because Arsenal’s two new strikers—who have played just over three games between them in an Arsenal shirt—have been deemed as incapable of finding the net, despite both being seasoned internationals coming off rampant seasons with their respective clubs and both of whom could easily have opened their accounts multiple times in the two opening matches were it not for those damn rust mites.
For these three reasons, the following names have been frequently and sometimes strongly linked with the Gunners. This is an assessment of the likelihood that each player would be purchased, and a study of the factors that led to the grade given.
Capoue is a bit of an enigma to me.
For a long time I thought Arsenal needed a player exactly like this: big, strong, elegant yet uncompromising, and always, always defensive.
My thinking was spurred by Arsenal’s defensive woes last season, where a lack of security at the top of the defensive third cost the Gunners dearly. Surely a big, strong, intimidating defensive destroyer would cut down the time that opposition attacking midfielders would have on the ball? Wouldn’t he scare them, and rush them into passes, thus ensuring Arsenal’s domination of the midfield through sheer fear?
Well. The answer is not necessarily a definitive yes or no, but my fears were proven to be somewhat miscalculated.
I like Alex Song as much as the next guy, great season and all that, but the most detrimental thing about him was his positioning. He was a great tackler, and he was a strong physical presence, but he wasn’t there enough.
Mikel Arteta has taken on Song’s wider role this year, but he is performing it with a good deal more discipline. In seeking to control the midfield, Wenger is placing his general in a position where he can sit and watch the game unfold: watch opponents’ attacks develop, ascertain the best way to position himself to stop that attack from developing, and then drop into space—slip back into the drivers seat.
This enables two things to happen. Firstly, Santi Cazorla takes an advanced role positioned just at the edge of the attacking third, and most of the team’s attacking play goes through him, which is good. He has the best combination of visual, technical and physical prowess in the team.
It also means that a more advanced role can be filled by a more physical player, which is where Abou Diaby comes in. Diaby does not play a “Song” role, to cut you short. His game is more similar to that of Yaya Toure: more focused on technical ability but complementing that technical ability with natural size and strength, which is key to Arsenal’s pressing game.
But Arteta’s stranglehold on this position also makes Capoue’s purchase an unnecessary and wasteful indulgence.
The Frenchman’s purchase would lend the midfield some defensive prowess, I don’t deny. But his holding role is different to that of Arteta’s, and requires significantly improved passing and dribbling skills. I wouldn’t call Arteta a Pirlo, but I would call Capoue a Gattuso, and I wouldn’t ask Gattuso to perform Arteta’s role (if that makes sense).
Couple this with the fact that, like Ramsey and Wilshere—though slightly older—Capoue is still developing, and does not strike the casual observer as being of the prima facie “quality” that Wenger insists will be the decisive factor in whether or not he buys.
He would also have a lot of adapting to do. Ligue 1 is not the kindergarten kick-about that it seems many think it is. There is a world of difference between Lisandro Lopez and Sergio Aguero. A signing like Capoue would necessitate another change in Arsenal’s still-jelling team unit.
Finally, Capoue is too close in age to Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong for Wenger to feel comfortable buying. The Professor has a lot of time for these young defensive midfielders with good reason, and Capoue would only stifle their development. As it is, one of the two should be reaching fruition by the time Arteta retires, and this purchase would mess too much with the future.
And anyone who has seen “Final Destination” will know what I’m talking about when I say don’t mess with the future.
Club: Athletic Bilbao
There’s this page I follow on Facebook, “Arsenal Transfer News”.
From the stubbornly flawed grammar and misspelled posts; the fact that one of the page administrators is 14; and the impassioned status update from two days ago suggesting that Cesc Fabregas could be making a spectacular return to the Emirates, I can only assume that is exists solely to perpetrate each and every outrageous transfer rumour Arsenal is linked to in the greater media.
I love it, because the page’s updates are frequent and often hilarious.
Ever since early in the transfer window—before even Olivier Giroud had been purchased by the Gunners—this Facebook page had been linking Arsenal to the tall Spanish striker Fernando Llorente. It seems that this rumour has somewhat gained traction over the last few weeks, no doubt spurred by Arsenal’s “profligacy” in front of goal thus far in the campaign, as well as Llorente’s recent declaration that he would not be extending his contract with Athletic Bilbao.
Now, Llorente is a powerful and imposing striker with a good touch and a lethal finish, who is good in the air and has a proven track record at both club and international level. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an excellent player.
He’s just not for Arsenal. Not now, not ever.
First things first: Arsenal don’t need Llorente.
The Spaniard’s purchase would be a panic buy. What I would call a “fan’s buy”—the sort of purchase that would only be made if Arsene Wenger surrendered control of Arsenal to a random fan for a single day.
Llorente is too similar a player to Olivier Giroud. He is tall and strong and not that quick but not that slow, he has a good finish, and is excellent in the air. Sound familiar?
Like Giroud, he can only play the striker position, which mitigates the overall effectiveness of both players as his purchase would divide two strikers’ playing time. I am more likely to become Lord Mayor of London than Arsene Wenger is to lose faith in one of his more expensive and promising summer signings after just two fruitless matches.
This is coupled with the fact that Bilbao president Josu Urrutia has plainly stated that neither Llorente nor his (ex) compatriot Javi Martinez would be leaving the Basque club for a penny less than their release clauses.
Martinez departed overnight to Bayern Munich for a fee of €40 million—his release fee down to a tee.
Llorente’s equivalent fee is around €35 million, or £27.7 million.
Now. Deep breath.
The idea that Wenger would sign a 27-year-old striker for a fee that nearly doubles the previous club record—which, incidentally, was also paid in this transfer window—when the striking department already holds two new faces (both of whom are proven internationals coming off 18-plus goals per season) and an able and as-yet untested backup in Theo Walcott (despite having previously stated that he had already compensated for the departure of Robin van Persie via these aforementioned signings, and with the defense and midfield in need of bolstering far more than the already borderline-overstacked attack), is preposterous.
This one’s a "no way".
I wrote an article in mid-July detailing the ways in which Arsene Wenger could spend the incoming money from the then-impending Robin van Persie transfer, not realizing at the time that the saga would be as caustically drawn-out as the ending of the third “Lord of the Rings” movie.
One of the slides I included was one on young Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, a 23-year-old French central defender who captained the Montpellier side that included Olivier Giroud to the Ligue 1 title last season.
Mbiwa can play throughout the back four, but he is naturally right-footed and would therefore likely favour right-back over the left.
Now, Mbiwa fills a gap, certainly. Bacary Sagna is speculated to return to training sometime in the next month, while Laurent Koscielny is nursing a calf injury. The purchase of Mbiwa would add experienced cover—albeit in his less-favoured position—for right-back, and would bolster the centre of defense in the event of an injury crisis.
He is certainly affordable to the Gunners. While he might cost more than the reported £7 million fee, it’s hard to believe that Montpellier would turn down a fee in the area of £9-10 million. Wenger’s war chest has more than enough in it to make a purchase like this with absolutely no impact on his finances.
The lad has also expressed an interest in moving to a big club abroad should the opportunity arise, though he has stressed that he will not hold Montpellier to ransom.
The areas where this transfer falls down is in future planning.
First, don’t talk about right-back. Mbiwa is not a right-back, and he never will be. To justify his purchase as a right-back for the future would be like Barcelona buying Thomas Vermaelen to cover Jordi Alba’s position. Just because he can play on the right doesn’t mean he should.
Now, onto serious arguments.
Mbiwa is 23 now. Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny, who are the two most dynamic and probably the first-choice Arsenal centre-backs, are 26. Per Mertesacker—whose game is etched much more from the board of subtlety and positioning than physicality, and who therefore will likely age well—is 27.
This means that these players have at least eight years left in them as top-class centre-backs who will be needed in most games. The introduction of Mbiwa would create an unhealthy kind of competition for a starting place that would eventually make a waste of money out of someone.
The reason that Arsenal’s midfield is so wonderfully deep is the range of developing players mixing with experienced players.
We have Ramsey, Frimpong, Coquelin, and Wilshere. We also have Diaby, Arteta, and Cazorla. Some are at their peak and some are growing.
But the point is, there is no imbalance. It is a seamless blend between burgeoning young players; players who are peaking; and, players who are ageing and adjusting their styles to compensate.
Too many cooks spoil the broth. With four players at their absolute peaks fighting for two spots, there’s one guy who is not going to develop as he should. It might not be Mbiwa, but it would be somebody; and losing anyone’s transfer fee unnecessarily without getting the best out of them doesn’t smack of something a man as frugal as Arsene Wenger would be happy doing.
One month ago, I would have filed this in that same depraved and hopelessly misguided cupboard as Llorente’s. However, following the long-winded stalemate over Theo Walcott’s contract, I’m no longer so sure.
Jesus Navas has been the next big thing in Spanish football since his late teens. It is simply by virtue of the fact that he doesn’t play for Real Madrid or Barcelona that he has flown under the radar, so to speak, for so many years.
Navas is a fabulous player. He offers good finishing, excellent pace (quicker than Gervinho, slower than Walcott), a lovely touch, visionary passing, and—possibly most pertinently—a great eye for a cross.
This is where the need for Navas could come in.
Thus far this season, Arsenal’s attack—at the risk of polarizing opinion—has been extremely promising.
There has been good off-the-ball movement. Cazorla is interacting well with his strikers, Diaby is getting forward with discipline and anticipating counter-attacks well, and Podolski played his roaming role with assuredness against Stoke.
It has been on the flanks—ironically the position where the Gunners are most over-staffed—that we have failed to meet expectation.
This is because Wenger’s use of two goal scorers on the wings—namely Podolski and Gervinho, or Podolski and Walcott—as well as a goal-scoring centre-forward, means that the entire weight of creative duty rests solely on the diminutive shoulders of Santi Cazorla.
While this is hardly a bad thing—it is Cazorla, after all—it leaves us in something of a similar-but-different situation to last year. One player is being asked to shoulder the attacking creativity of the team, and because that player plays in a roaming central role, the flanks are being under-utilised as a bearer of fruit.
Gervinho and Walcott are good players, but Gervinho has a tendency to cut inside whether it be on the right or on the left, preferring to look for a shooting or passing opportunity than to cross the ball into the centre to the tall poacher Giroud or the lethal boot or Podolski at the far post.
Walcott is a terrier, and his speed is unmatchable, but he is too direct, too one-dimensional. I have always been a big supporter of Walcott’s, and I still think he is the best right winger for Arsenal this season. However, his inability to add facets to his game has me wondering whether he has progressed as far as he can, and whether I’m OK with that if it happens to be true.
Navas would offer something fresh and new to Arsenal. He is a beautiful crosser of the ball, and the juxtaposition of his brilliant blue eyes with his dark brown hair makes him look like a humanoid alien off a promotional Radiohead poster.
Most importantly, his all-round skill set would allow him to take some of the creative burden off Cazorla, and this can only be a good thing.
With regard to the practicalities of Navas’ purchase, there are some obstacles.
The first is price. The winger’s release clause is £35 million, but reports suggest Sevilla could be persuaded by an offer of half that figure—though, admittedly, I could write a blog claiming Santos were prepared to accept £1,000 and a bag of jersey caramels for Neymar which could then be cited as a “report”, so this claim should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The second is Navas’ well-documented homesickness. Wenger has had experiences with this roadblock before, in the anomaly that was Jose Antonio Reyes. Given the amount of time, effort, and anticipation that went into cultivating Reyes’s ability (and bore little fruit), Wenger may not be willing to take a chance on these circumstances beyond his control.
It would certainly be a gamble, and anybody with a masters degree in economics will tell you that other people with masters degrees in economics don’t like taking gambles.
Finally, this deal would be entirely-dependant on Theo Walcott. Arsene would doubtlessly prefer to keep the English winger, who has been at the club for virtually his entire meaningful career, and is one of his last remaining projects.
No deal will happen so long as Walcott’s future remains up in the air. Should the English winger’s demands turn out to be beyond what Arsenal are prepared to offer him, a replacement on the flanks is likely.
But until that time, a deal for Navas—or any attacking player, for that matter—remains unlikely.
Rating if Walcott stays: 2/10
Rating if Walcott leaves: 7/10
Would you like an example of how life reflects art? I have one for you.
Go home, hire out the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist, and watch the “please sir, may I have some more?” scene on repeat for five months.
You are now experiencing the full extent of Theo Walcott’s contract negotiations.
It would be a sorry sight indeed to see Theo go in the near future. The young Englishman has been at Arsenal for seven years now, difficult though that may be to believe, and even so he is still only 23 years of age.
He has effectively claimed the right wing spot as his own. Last season he was Arsenal’s second-highest goal scorer and third-highest provider of assists, and he remains probably the fastest top-level footballer in the world in a 100m dash.
He can still go up, and this is why I think Arsenal should hold onto Walcott. The club wants him to stay. Arsene wants him to stay—he is an important part of the Frenchman’s plans—and, according to the Professor, Theo himself wants to stay. So why are we talking about the impending possibility of Walcott’s transfer?
Well. Money, basically. Money, and greed, and agents. I wish I could swear on this website because there’s a number of well-chosen intensifiers that could precede “agents” in this context, but rules are rules.
Agents. Darned agents.
At the moment, Arsenal have reportedly tabled a offer of a five-year deal on £75,000 per week.
The way I see it, Theo Walcott’s contract standoff has progressed as a result of his agent seeing the astronomical weekly wages of Theo’s contemporaries—see James Milner’s £90,000 per week—and is thus basing Walcott’s wage demands on a wage-to-value basis grounded in the arena of top-flight clubs.
Essentially, Walcott’s agent is demanding a wage that would be paid to the player at any other club of Arsenal’s stature. And a demand like that might seem reasonable. But it’s not.
See, the agent’s job is to get the player the best deal possible. When it comes to a club as financially sensible as Arsenal this goal often directly conflicts with the goals of the club.
See, Arsenal works on a real team basis. The emphasis is not on the stars, but on the team as a whole. Their success is fundamentally based around having a general level of quality that permeates the team, and ensuring that each member of the squad feels like a valuable member of the squad.
It’s an admirably utilitarian system. It emphasizes equality and discourages prima donna behaviour and inflated egos. It’s the reason why Gervinho and Laurent Koscielny are earning similar wages, when at Manchester City the Ivorian would almost certainly be earning twice the wage of the Frenchman.
It means that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have to trust in their players to believe in the team philosophy as strongly as they do, and from what one can see, they do for the most part. Samir Nasri, Adebayor, Clichy and Toure are all notable exceptions, but other than those willing to move to the West Egg the willingness of Arsenal’s players to live their lives within the financial constraints of the club is admirable and telling.
The problem lies in the agent, who has nothing to do with the team or the team’s philosophy but is as hungry, uncompromising and downright nasty as Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s divorce lawyer.
The agent’s role, ironically, is to ensure the best deal possible for the client, but often this is interpreted as “the best financial deal” possible for the client. In a club which operates within very rigid financial parameters and which negotiates solely with an agent and not the player themselves, this can present a situation such as the one we are currently facing.
So, let’s look at these conditions, albeit in a somewhat warped context: the Gunners need Walcott to an extent—but not if it means they’re going to set an unhealthy precedent to other players in the squad who are important but not absolutely key.
Theo could definitely be replaced—personally, I’d love to see Jesus Navas on the right wing—but taking into account settling-in time, coupled with the difficulties Navas could face and the intimacy with which Walcott doubtlessly knows Arsenal’s game now (and I presume he has a strong rapport with Arsene Wenger), Theo is probably the best option available to us on the right flank.
Arsenal can afford him. Actually, they can afford pretty much anything for him. They can go ahead and break the entire wage structure to keep Walcott if they see fit. But it would not be wise to crack such a set-in-stone concept.
Chelsea did something like this when they purchased Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko early in Abramovich’s reign. Following the imparting of such large contracts, established key players—John Terry and Frank Lampard, in this case—took exception and demanded similar contracts. They were duly rewarded and resulted in more first-team players like Didier Drogba demanding higher contracts, and so it spirals on and on until a collective group of good players are earning a total wage which outweighs their performances on the pitch.
I don’t think Walcott will go—at least not in this window.
I think Wenger is biding his time on this one. He will wait and watch Theo’s performances, and offer a contract at a prescribed time which reflects his perceived value based on those performances, and he will let Theo know this: if you play to a £100,000 a week level, we’ll pay it; if you don’t, we won’t.
But this will certainly be one to watch over the coming months.
Rating: 2/10 to leave in this window
Rating: 7/10 to be sold before the end of his contract