Michael Johnson: Arsenal's Main Transfer Target?

A DimondSenior Analyst IAugust 26, 2008

It has been a transfer window of highs and lows for Arsenal, with the income of fresh talent being more than offset by the loss of established stars.

While the likes of Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey look good additions, the departures of players such as Mathieu Flamini and (to a lesser extent) Gilberto Silva have left a void that is yet to be adequately filled.

To add to that, this week’s announcement that Swiss defender Philippe Senderos will head to AC Milan on a season-long loan—with a view to a permanent deal—has raised further questions about the depth of Arsenal’s squad. Wenger’s loss of faith in Senderos will not alarm too many fans, but the acquisition of Man Utd’s Mikael Silvestre can hardly be seen as an upgrade in quality.

As such, many pundits are suggesting that Wenger will be looking to add one more defender before the transfer window slams shut. Wenger, as illustrated by the departure of Senderos, seems to disagree:

"We have Johan Djourou, we have Kolo Toure, we have Alex Song, William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre now who can play centre-back so we have congestion there,” he said in a press conference earlier this week. "It has not been decided yet whether [Sendero’s] transfer will be permanent.”

In defence at least then, it appears Wenger is happy. But this is not true across the pitch—the reality is the Frenchman still desperately needs to replace the two holding midfielders, Flamini and Gilberto, that deserted him earlier in the summer.

Publically at least, Wenger is putting on a brave face. When asked about the weakness of his midfield, the Frenchman was dismissive:

 “Let's not make comparisons with this team and last season's team because it is not a lot different. If it is better only the future will tell us that.”

Nevertheless, at the moment Wenger has nobody in his squad capable of filling Flamini’s void on a regular basis. Denilson has not developed as expected, and Abou Diaby is too injury prone to be relied upon. Rumours have suggested that Kolo Toure would be moved into Flamini’s old role, but Wenger—one of the more tactically astute managers in the game—is no doubt aware that the Ivorian’s technical shortfalls would make him a liability in the position.

As such, the North London club are clearly weaker in that area this season, and need to purchase a suitable player. They have been heavily linked with some high profile central midfielders, the two most prominent being Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry and Liverpool’s Xabi Alonso. Many newspapers have reported the club making concrete bids for both players, but this appears not to be the case. As Wenger said in a press conference today:

“We just look at the right player and if we can get him, we get him. If we don't, we don't.”

Both Barry and Alonso are publically available at the right price—and have been for over a month—so Arsenal could easily get them if they wanted. The fact they haven’t, considering Wenger’s comments, is quite telling—obviously no serious bid has yet been made. With both players now cup-tied from European competition, a move to Arsenal must be considered increasingly unlikely.

It appears, then, that the Emirates club are looking further afield for that midfield capture. One long term target, the Swiss international Gokhan Inler, is reported to have turned down a deal to join the club, believing it to be a year too early in his development:

“We have decided that Inler remains in Udinese,” Inler’s agent, Dino Lambrini, explained. “Any player would want to play for Arsenal of course, but for Inler this may be perhaps a little early. Maybe a season too early.”

If the reports are true, then Wenger’s comments seem remarkably apt. If the 24-year-old Udinese player really did reject a move, perhaps the Arsenal manager is now content to move on with the players he already has.

However, there is one other player that has been infrequently discussed by the press, Michael Johnson. Wenger is believed to be a long-term admirer of the Manchester City midfielder, and is rumoured to see him as an ideal replacement for Flamini.

It is easy to see why. The 20-year-old midfielder is extremely tenacious—fond of the tackle and comfortable in the trenches of Premiership football—just like the 24-year-old Frenchman. However, equally reminiscent of Flamini, the young Englishman also loves to roam forward, and provides an extra attacking dimension to his team.

Flamini, whose attacking abilities were often underrated at the Emirates, always performed a similar role—ensuring opposition midfielders could not solely focus on stopping Cesc Fabregas. This often gave the Spaniard that little extra bit of space to work his magic.

Johnson also has many of the characteristics Wenger felt were missing last weekend, in the disappointing loss at Fulham:

“It is up to us as a team to show personality, strength and belief within the squad. That will make the difference,” he said. “We have talked about everything needed to be successful in a team, and commitment is needed for any success, no matter how much quality you have.”

The England U-21 international, even at his young age, seems to have all those qualities in abundance. He is never less than fully committed, and seems to have the inner drive and determination all successful central midfielders have.

Being English should not harm his case either.

If you look back at all past Premiership champions, it is clear that they all have one thing in common—an English backbone. Arsenal’s last title-winning side—“The Invincibles” of 2003/4—contained Martin Keown, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, and Ray Parlour. Now however, perhaps only Theo Walcott will play a regular part in the campaign.

Without homegrown talent, is it any wonder that the Gunners failed to match the desire of their rivals last year, when they needed it most?

Johnson, however, would add an English spine to the team. He would transmit to the rest of the team the importance and reward of winning the Premiership title. His hunger, in such a mentally weak team, could prove even more crucial than his footballing abilities. Gareth Barry might provide similar leadership, but surely does not have the potential that seems to attract “The Professor”.

The only problem, however, might be Johnson’s potential transfer fee. It appears no-one, least of all Thaksin Shinawatra, really knows what the financial situation is at Manchester City, and so his availability is far from certain.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely Arsenal could not get Johnson for the same price (around £18m) rumoured to be required for Barry or Alonso, indeed Mark Hughes would find it difficult to stop his young starlet from moving if the Eastlands outfit received a bid of around £12m for the services.

Crucially, a move for Johnson might be more readily sanctioned by the Arsenal board than for Alonso or Barry, what with the potential for him to play over a decade at the club, a period far in excess of either other high profile target. It would almost be considered a long term investment, something the club know all about.

Ultimately, however, Arsenal fans should have learnt by now to trust Arsene Wenger’s judgement. Whether or not he makes a signing before Monday, the 58-year-old undoubtedly knows what he is doing.

Already this summer, he has brought in Nasri to replace Hleb, and Silvestre to improve the defence. Ramsey, Coquelin and Bischoff look to have a promising future. Arsenal fans should rightly be happy with these bits of business.

Only Flamini still needs replacing.

So don’t be disappointed if Wenger ends up signing Michael Johnson—it could well prove to be the most inspired capture of the lot.