Arsenal’s recent transfer activity has been marked out by an uncharacteristic decisiveness. The additions of Alexis Sanchez, Mathieu Debuchy, David Ospina and Calum Chambers have served to address some critical areas of weakness in the first-team squad and have left Gunners fans feeling justifiably optimistic in the early phases of the new campaign.
But despite Arsenal going unbeaten in the three competitive games that they have played since thrashing Manchester City 3-0 in the Community Shield (beating Crystal Palace 2-1 at home and drawing 0-0 and 2-2 away at Besiktas and Everton respectively), many among the Gunners faithful are eager to see reinforcements arrive in defence.
In this light, news that the Gunners’ long-rumoured move for Olympiacos’ Greece international centre-back Kostas Manolas is nearing completion will come as a welcome relief.
James Orr of The Independentand James Dickenson of The Express were perhaps hasty in reporting that the 23-year-old was undergoing a medical ahead of a £6-8 million move earlier this week; however, the transfer does appear to be evolving quickly.
On Thursday, Gabrielle Marcotti told talkSPORT that “[Mario] Balotelli’s agent, Mino Raiola, is currently in the UK. He is in London trying to do a deal for Kostas Manolas, presumably to Arsenal, so a lot of things add up.”
Furthermore, Robin Cottile noted in Saturday’s The Daily Mail that Manolas was a conspicuous absentee in Olympiacos’ squad for their opening league fixture of the new season.
It looks odds-on then, with money you can put on usasportsbooksites.com, that Manolas will move to the Emirates ahead of the September 1 transfer deadline. The Greek will be one of four central-defensive options that Arsene Wenger can rely on through the new campaign.
He will compete with the club’s newly appointed vice-captain, Per Mertesacker; the France international, Laurent Koscielny; and the newly arrived 19-year-old, Chambers, for a starting berth in the centre of the back line.
And although Manolas would be perhaps the lowest profile of the club’s summer acquisitions, he might just prove the most significant.
The Mertesacker-Koscielny axis has performed remarkably effectively for Wenger since their institution in central defence a season and a half ago. Arsenal were just one clean sheet short of Chelsea (the league’s best defence) in the previous campaign. Furthermore, Mertesacker and Koscielny were seminal in Arsenal conceding just 14 goals through 31 league fixtures last time out (Arsenal conceded only one goal 14 times).
This was one of the club’s strongest defensive showings since the 1998/99 side which conceded only 17 goals all season. And, ultimately, it was the remarkable consistency of the Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership which precipitated captain Thomas Vermaelen’s departure to Barcelona.
Nevertheless, Arsenal were remarkably fortunate to emerge relatively unscathed from the previous campaign with only three senior centre-halves in the first-team squad.
And it should not be forgotten that for all of the acclaim that Mertesacker and Koscielny rightly receive from the Arsenal faithful, the duo were culpable for the Gunners conceding 22 goals against the teams in the top-five last season.
And for all of the promise that Chambers has shown in his early performances at centre-half for Arsenal, Gunners fans should bear in mind that the 19-year-old broke through at Southampton at right-back last season, where he still only played 25 times as deputy for Nathaniel Clyne.
There is a steep learning curve when an inexperienced (albeit hugely gifted) defender like Chambers comes into a title-challenging side’s back line. And the centre of defence, as the cases of Philippe Senderos and Johan Djourou well demonstrate, can be an unforgiving position in which to study on the job.
It may be more prudent, therefore, for Chambers to slot in at centre-half when absolutely necessary during his first season at Arsenal and for Wenger to focus the majority of the English youngster’s first-team development as deputy for Debuchy.
Manolas would make this more nuanced plan of integration for Chambers readily achievable. Furthermore, the Greek’s arrival would off-set the departure of Carl Jenkinson to West Ham on loan and make the sight of Nacho Monreal playing at centre-back appreciably rarer.
Manolas is more experienced than Chambers and more proven. At 6'2", he possesses an imposing physical frame suited to the Premier League and the Greek has played seven times at Champions League level.
Manolas marshalled Robin van Persie very effectively during Olympiacos’ 2-0 victory against Manchester United in Piraeus last year, and he played every minute of Greece’s World Cup campaign in Brazil this summer.
Daniel Anwar at Squawka notes that Manolas won an impressive 75 percent of his tackles and 71 percent of his aerial duels during the World Cup. Anwar adds that “in the Champions League, the Greece international won more tackles per 90 minutes than both Mertesacker and Koscielny did in their league appearances.”
The acquisition of Manolas, therefore, stands to be of huge benefit to Arsenal’s title challenge. And when one considers the fact that, as things stand, Arsenal are only an injury and suspension away from Chambers partnering Monreal at centre-half, it becomes an imperative.