If Arsenal do not win the Premier League this season, then it may be difficult for some fans to avoid singling out the January transfer deadline as the day their chances slipped away.
There may be matches that prove more directly pivotal—a home defeat to Manchester City, for example, or an away loss to Chelsea—but many fans may be unable to resist the temptation to blame those losses, or any others, on the club's tentative work in the midseason market.
The Gunners went into the last day of the winter transfer window with two areas obviously needing attention: a succession to the long-running search for another striker to provide support and competition for Olivier Giroud, and another body in midfield to cover a recent spate of injuries and suspensions.
In the end they, managed to address one of those areas. They failed to acquire a striker, as was generally expected (if still hugely disappointing to the club's faithful) but did bring in experienced Sweden international Kim Kallstrom on loan to help assuage their midfield issues.
Within less than 24 hours, however, that deal was suddenly being made to look foolish, with reports that Kallstrom will miss six weeks with a back injury—the same six weeks he had primarily been signed to provide cover for.
Kallstrom apparently picked up the injury playing beach football in Abu Dhabi, and it was uncovered by Arsenal’s staff during his medical. But they deemed it not serious enough to prevent the deal being completed—until he exacerbated the issue in his first full training session a day later.
Kallstrom told Arsenal’s official website on Friday:
Yesterday I was in Abu Dhabi with Spartak Moscow and I got a phone call asking if I would like to go to Arsenal on loan for a few months. I thought ‘Absolutely, why not?’
So I quickly went back to the hotel, got my stuff and went to the airport as fast as I could! I flew into London today.
Now I just want to settle down as fast as I can and prepare for the games ahead.
Unfortunately, he won’t be playing in games any time soon. Kallstrom was always unlikely to play against Crystal Palace on Sunday—the Russian season has not yet started, so he was just beginning pre-season fitness training with Spartak—but, according to Goal.com’s Wayne Veysey, he had been pencilled in to perhaps play some part against Liverpool next weekend after undergoing a week of specialist fitness work.
With Aaron Ramsey out for at least six weeks, Mathieu Flamini suspended for four games, Jack Wilshere out for a week or so and Tomas Rosicky struggling to recover from a broken nose (although he is expected to play some part against Palace, wearing a protective mask), Kallstrom’s presence would have certainly helped alleviate the pressure on the likes of Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil to play as many minutes as possible over a crucial phase of the season that includes games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona.
But his absence with a back problem now means he will likely return to availability just when he is no longer really required—because Ramsey will also be fit again—and when his absence may have already proved costly to some, or all, of Arsenal’s short-term ambitions.
If, in some horrible quirk of fate, Kallstrom becomes available right around the same time that Giroud gets injured, Arsenal fans may further curse the irony. On the day they needed to sign a striker, they instead got a midfielder that already seems to have turned out to be nothing more than an unnecessary luxury.
At the start of the day, after all, Kallstrom was not even on the radar for most fans—who were hoping rumours about Lazio striker Miroslav Klose, or a return for Real Madrid youngster Alvaro Morata, were true.
But the predominant focus was fixed squarely on Schalke attacking midfielder Julian Draxler, who had been an Arsenal target from the start of the month, after reports that the club had sent a delegation to Germany to try and iron out a deal worth in the region of £37 million.
But negotiations ultimately proved futile, and Arsenal duly moved onto Kallstrom.
Even if Kallstrom had been fit, it would not have been a case of Plan B replacing Plan A; while Kallstrom is purely a central midfield option, Draxler (prodigiously talented as an attacker as he is) would have offered an option on either flank, and he could have even played as a deep-lying striker to offer a layer of cover behind Giourd. But it was not to be.
The news of Kallstrom's injury emerged around the same time Draxler appeared on German television on Saturday talking about why he did not make the move to London on Friday.
Sounding somewhat disenchanted about the whole affair, the playmaker seemed to indicate that his club blocked the move despite their asking price being met—sparking suggestions that Bayern Munich had helped scupper the deal, promising to sign Draxler in the summer instead.
“I want to go and had a good offer to leave,” said Draxler, according to Metro. “But the Schalke manager Horst Heldt said no to the transfer and would not let me go.”
Per Chris Davie of Goal.com, Heldt subsequently acknowledged:
There were offers for Julian this winter. We told him, but also that we wouldn't let him go.
There was no replacement on the market and Julian didn't really want to leave. But he would have brought us a lot of money.
The moment will come [when Draxler leaves]. We can't avoid this. He's an outstanding player in Europe—one day he'll leave us.
It seems improbable that Arsenal would send negotiators out to Schalke to try and seal a transfer if it was never a realistic possibility (although Liverpool ultimately suffered similar frustration in the pursuit of Dnipro winger Yevhen Konoplyanka), suggesting that the transfer could have happened if Arsenal had just been a bit more aggressive.
To then miss out only adds to the sense of frustration among club and fans—especially as it has been clear for almost the entire season that a striker needed to be added. But it has never been Wenger's style to pay even one cent over the odds for any player, and it seems that restraint overruled everything last month.
Nevertheless, it may be a dedication to principles that ultimately prevents Arsenal from reclaiming the top of the Premier League before the season ends.
Considering the form and quality of Manchester City and Chelsea, it was never a probability that Arsenal would win the title this season—merely a possibility, and a far better one than there has been for nearly a decade.
Nevertheless, if they don’t end up lifting the trophy then fans will rightly wonder what might have been, had they just been a bit more adventurous and clinical in the transfer market on January 31st.