Once the summer transfer window opens, Arsenal will have numerous options for stabilizing their inconsistent central defense.
Most fans and commentators believe that a transfer for a new center back is in the offing. However, since Arsene Wenger's announcement that he will make at least one signing by the start of the World Cup, he has been linked to enough "targets" to fill out the entire Arsenal roster with central defenders.
In order to sort through the transfer season mess, it will help to ascertain what exactly Wenger and Arsenal will be looking for in any potential transfer.
Determining le Prof's likely target will depend first and foremost on the status of William Gallas at Arsenal, as well as an assessment of a couple young defenders in the Arsenal system.
If Gallas re-signs, Arsenal will still need a serviceable backup in addition to any young players that might be called up. With Mikael Silvestre hopefully on his way out, it would be irresponsible to depend entirely on either Johan Djourou or Havard Nordtveit as the only backup option after Sol Campbell.
However, if Gallas does not return, Arsenal will need a legitimate first team talent who can step into the starting role alongside Thomas Vermaelen. In that case, the question would be whether Wenger wants a younger player with a lot of potential who's just moving into his prime, or a mature player who can do a credible job for three to five years until one of Arsenal's young players is ready to step in?
By examining some of the available options at center back, a few likely scenarios should emerge.
The In-House Route
Johan Djourou and Havard Nordtveit are the two young players most likely to see time with the first team next season.
Opinions are divided on Johan Djourou due to the fact that he has only made 17 Premier League appearances for the Gunners since the 2007-08 season.
In the glass-half-empty camp, many have pointed out that the 23-year-old Swiss defender has been injured far too often, which has stunted his development at a crucial period in his young career.
In the glass-half-full camp, Djourou has been praised as a natural fit for Arsenal: He's versatile, having started his career as a defensive midfielder, and he is comfortable on the ball. At 6'3", his size removes any worries about fielding an undersized defense. His speed and athleticism have never been in question.
Highly regarded Norwegian defender Havard Nordtveit tops the list of talented teenagers on Neil Banfield's reserve squad. Blessed with superb technique and an advanced tactical understanding that would be a credit to a much older player, Nordtveit has spent the last two seasons honing his skills in successful stints at Lillestrom and Nuremberg. He is tall enough at 6'2", but he still needs to develop the head for fast, physical play that is a sine qua non of Premiership football.
If he were to join Johan Djourou on the bench next season, Nordveit would gain valuable first team experience, with the added bonus of playing behind two star players, depending on whom Wenger signs this offseason.
High Profile European Targets
With only a precious few exceptions, Wenger has avoided engaging in bidding wars with other top English and European clubs in his 15 year tenure at Arsenal. Generally, he prefers to rely on his own keen eye and the discretion of his near-peerless scouting network to find better deals on less touted players.
Though FIFA and PES players the world over, for whom money is no object, may rue Wenger's transfer tactics, those tactics have been successful for Arsenal, most recently with the signing of Thomas Vermaelen, one of two Arsenal players to make the PFA Team of the Year for the 2009-10 season.
That being said, the lure of a high profile young talent is great, and if Wenger is looking to make a splash with a £5 million, £10 million, £15 million, or larger signing, there are a few prominent European names that are worth examining.
Borussia Dortmund youngster Neven Subotic tops the list of talented youngsters surrounded by a thick cloud of unsubstantiated rumors.
At the close of last summer's transfer window, serious news outlets reported that Subotic was on his way to Arsenal, which would have been a welcome surprise.
Standing at 6'4", Subotic is strong, possesses a great leap, and has good pace for someone his size. What really sets him apart, however, is his advanced tactical understanding and maturity.
Despite spending much of his young life in Germany and the United States, Subotic opted to represent the country of his birth, Serbia, at the international level. This summer in South Africa, he will form half of an imposing duo alongside Manchester United stalwart Nemanja Vidic.
Though Wenger is determined to make a signing before June 11, it may be difficult to come to terms with Dortmund and with Subotic's representatives in that time, since Subotic will not be an unknown quantity this time around.
A quick Google search will link his name to Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, and a host of other teams in search of "the new Vidic" for anywhere from £14 million to £20 million. So many rumors with so little evidence—at this rate, it wouldn't be surprising if the elusive Neven Subotic were also linked to the JFK assassination, Princess Diana's death, the Area 51 cover-up, and the anti-fluoridation movement.
Whatever he's been up to in the past, one way or another it seems Subotic will be playing outside the Bundesliga next season.
The question is: Where will he end up, and how much will it take to land him?
In the last few days, PSG's Mamadou Sakho has been suggested as a likely target to replace countryman William Gallas at right center back for the Gunners.
Sakho is a physical and tenacious defender, but he has played fewer than two full seasons worth of matches for PSG. He possesses all the physical attributes of a top-flight center back, but his lack of experience is apparent in his sometimes rash decision-making.
A member of the PSG youth system since the age of 11, Sakho is under contract with Les Parisiens for the next two seasons. He has recently made known his restlessness in his current situation and has expressed an eagerness to leave Ligue 1 for the more prestigious Premiership, where he would certainly fit the Arsene Wenger mould.
Sakho would come much cheaper than Subotic, but his lack of experience would not make him a suitable full-time replacement for a player of Gallas' calibre, especially if consistency and discipline are to be the new watchwords of the Arsenal defense.
If he is brought in this summer, he could really benefit from playing behind a wily veteran like Gallas for a year or two.
Palermo's Simon Kjaer has also been mentioned as a target for Wenger, though his is another name that seems to have been linked to every Premiership side with sufficient name recognition and funds.
Kjaer, at 21, is a complete center back: aggressive but intelligent, strong in the air, and physical while possessing an excellent understanding of positional play.
Most commonly, the young Danish international has been connected with Liverpool. However, the Reds might not have the £12 million it would take to purchase his contract from il Rosanero. In that case, if Wenger, with his ample transfer funds, could swoop in and snatch up Kjaer, it would be well worth the price.
Domestic Options: Stating the Obvious
Two days ago, Wenger indicated that he has turned his gaze toward the normally costly domestic market.
"It looks to me like the big teams with big financial potential like Manchester City, like Chelsea might go abroad," he said in an interview. "So if they move abroad the internal market will be a bit cheaper."
If center back is one of the places at which Wenger is looking for a less-inflated domestic option, towering Fulham central defender Brede Hangeland is the obvious choice.
according to reputable news outlets, Wenger spent much of last summer negotiating for the Texas-born Norwegian international, and it would come as no surprise to learn that Wenger still covets the 28-year-old.
Hangeland is tall and strong, which gives him a ferocious aerial presence. Along with the formidable defensive ethic Roy Hodgson has enforced in his tenure at Craven Cottage, Brede Hangeland is one of the chief reasons Fulham allowed fewer goals off of headers and set-pieces than any other team in the Premiership last season.
Though not as quick to respond when the ball is on the pitch, Hangeland's positioning is generally impeccable. He is capable of covering wide spaces, which he often does when Paul Konchesky pushes up the left flank. This would bode well for an Arsenal squad that regularly utilizes its full backs as flanking wingers.
Hangeland's remarkable aptitude for positioning, however, often makes up for a notable lack of pace. He can be beaten with speed if he loses touch with his partner, which is always a danger with the high back four Arsenal typically employ.
Hangeland recently extended his contract with Fulham through 2013, which will increase the price of any prospective transfer. With the Cottagers riding high on a wave of European success, the Norway captain will not come cheap if he comes at all.
Might Wenger go a more thrifty route?
Fire Sale: Do Financially Strapped Portsmouth or West Ham Have the Answer?
Woeful Portsmouth don't present many likely targets.
Ricardo Rocha or Tal Ben Haim could likely be had for cheap from relegation-bound Pompey, but Rocha is old and a Spurs castoff, and Ben Haim hasn't made more than 20 appearances in any of the last three seasons.
Ben Haim's uneven form at Chelsea—who relegated him to the reserve squad—suggests he might struggle at a top club. However, he would be a cheap, proven option on the sunnier side of 30, and he would certainly be an upgrade over Mikael Silvestre.
Administration-threatened West Ham present a host of curious options.
Jonathan Spector, at 24, is a smart young player and an excellent passer of the ball. Normally a right back, he has shown the ability to shut down some of world's best at the international level, where he has often made spot starts at center back for the injury-plagued and red card-happy American national team. He could be signed as a developmental option and trained to make the transition to center back, for which his size, agility, and intelligence make him an interesting prospect.
Matthew Upson was Wenger's first English signing at Arsenal, and he has had a renaissance as a high-character contributor these last couple years at West Ham. He has a calm, commanding presence in the back, and he is a solid reserve for the national side.
The West Ham captain was rumored to have been on the trading block this January, and though he is getting on at 31, Upson is a younger, abler option than Sol Campbell. His contract at West Ham is up at the end of next season, so if Wenger is willing to pay a £5-8 million transfer fee he could be had for a short-term, low-risk deal.
Young but extremely talented James Tomkins has represented England at that national level since U-15s and has been compared to former Hammer Rio Ferdinand. He possesses ideal height at 6'3"; he is strong but could stand to bulk up a bit, and his comfort on the ball would make him an excellent young option at Arsenal.
Nothing is sacrosanct when wealthier clubs come knocking at Upton Park, but Tomkins would not come cheap, as his youth makes him an ideal fit for Zola's rebuilding efforts, and his obvious potential gives the Hammers significant trade leverage. As late as last week Tomkins is rumored to have been offered as part of a trade package for Jamie O'Hara, which suggests he could be had for the right combination of talent and cash.
Conclusion: What Should Arsenal Do?
The best thing for Arsenal would be to re-sign Gallas and add to the team with a strong young player like Tomkins or Sakho without subtracting a world-class veteran. Not only would it likely cost a lot less than spending £15-20 million on a Hangeland or a Subotic, but it would give them much-needed depth and stability on the back line.
Wenger has given Gallas till the end of May to come to terms, but the closer it comes to the end of the season without Gallas inking a new deal, the more it seems like he's on his way out.
If that is the case, then Arsenal need to make a big signing. Havard Nordtveit may be the center back of the future, but he's at least a year or two away from acquiring the physical dominance that he will need to anchor a Big Four defense. Johan Djourou is too inexperienced for now and likely too injury-prone to be counted on in the long run.
A player like Hangeland would be the ideal signing in such a scenario, and if Wenger is right about the domestic transfer market being less competitive this summer, he may make use of his considerable resources to finally land the rock solid Norwegian. At 28, Hangeland is at a perfect age to play four or five strong seasons at Arsenal while preparing his young countryman, Nordtveit, to one day take over the position.
Hangeland would be a better signing than Neven Subotic or Simon Kjaer.
The problem with signing either battle-tested 21-year-old, aside from the price, is that such a signing could be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Nordtveit, Gavin Hoyte, Kyle Bartley, and the rest of the defenders in the Arsenal youth system.
One of Wenger's best qualities as a manager is his faith in his first team players and in the youth development system he has painstakingly built over the last decade and a half. Though it sometimes results in his stubbornly sticking by a player like Lukasz Fabianski, it gives Arsenal F.C. an invaluable reputation among players as a desirable place to play.
Whatever option or options Wenger pursues, going into the 2010-11 season Arsenal must balance the desire for an ideal starting XI with the need for suitable backups and squad depth. If 2009-10 taught us anything, it's that championship contenders must have a viable Plan B.
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