As another disappointing season has run its course, Arsenal's potential transfer fodder is heating up quickly. As sure as spring will turn into summer, an Arsenal offseason is always filled with rampant transfer speculation. Talk of Cesc leaving for Barcelona and Nasri’s stalled contract negotiations are grabbing the headlines—causing Gooners everywhere to fret their twitter feeds.
And while Arsenal looks to increase its depth with an experienced goalie to mentor Szczesny, a midfield battler (Scott Parker?), and a striker (Gervinho?) as Bendtner is shown the door, there is one position which is continually scrutinized—centerback.
Despite an improvement in their defensive record, Arsenal still looked uncertain at times. This was especially true from set pieces where Arsenal was most vulnerable; Arsene Wenger recently stated that more than half of the team’s Premier League goals conceded came from set pieces.
And though in years past Wenger has acknowledged the side’s defensive weakness (yet done little), his tone in recent weeks appears more declarative. Wenger understands Arsenal needs to tighten up defensively and will look to the transfer market for help.
Whether he makes a big buy or not, Wenger did make a statement of intent. Apparently he made a last-ditch effort to bring in the talented England centerback, Phil Jones (for what would have been a record Arsenal fee). Yet, as happens in the season as well, Alex Ferguson got the better of Wenger—meaning Jones will sign for United in the coming days.
So, with news that Wenger is almost certain to bring in defensive reinforcements—effectively ending the ineffective tenure of Sebastien Squillaci—it is worth considering the most likely options.
The critic’s favorite. It seems you can’t read about Arsenal without seeing another former Gunner imploring Wenger to bring in Gary Cahill. For two years now the Bolton rock has been considered a target for Wenger—especially given the cordial relationship between the two clubs.
However, transfer windows have come and gone without a move for Cahill. Will this summer be any different?
What he offers: The English core many Gooners have been dying to see. He is strong in the air, a tough tackler, and reasonably comfortable on the ball (which Wenger demands of his CBs). Though he hasn’t played at the highest European level, he recently became an England international and his reputation is growing precipitously.
He would add significant Premier League experience to a backline which has lacked that in recent years. Moreover, his strength on set pieces would be a helpful (see: necessary) addition to a team which has struggled to deal with England’s tougher and more organized opponents.
Cahill, to many fans and critics, seems destined to be in the red and white this fall. Though with Manchester City apparently also in for him, Arsenal may have to open their pocketbooks if they want a realistic shot at the England international.
Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this will happen. Wenger has balked before at bringing in Cahill and it seems less likely that, as his fee rises, the Professor will be willing to spend on Cahill. He would be a welcome addition, and could compete for a starting spot beside Vermaelen, but the likelihood of this move seems to be shrinking.
Wenger could dangle a young Arsenal player (on loan) to sweeten the deal—and lower his fee—though I’m skeptical this will happen.
Another defender who has been linked with Wenger over the years. Young, French, and relatively unknown (until recently), he ticks all the boxes of a Wenger target. Still, with a rising transfer fee and calls for an experienced English defender, Wenger’s interest is unclear. Yet one thing is apparent: Sakho is a future star on both a European and international level.
What he offers: Strength, leadership and an impressive leap. Three qualities which the Arsenal backline has missed over the past few years. Did I also mention bags of potential? Oh, I didn’t. Well, bags of potential – Sakho has it.
The footballing community seems to think Sakho is destined for big things, as evidenced by Laurent Blanc’s growing faith in him for the French squad. He is a powerful left-footed centerback who can also play left-back—which would add versatility to the Arsenal squad. Sakho is known to be a fiery leader who plays beyond his age—and bosses around his PSG backline with authority. He is not an unpolished risk for the future; Sakho is already established as a top-flight centerback in Ligue 1 and improving rapidly.
Although it wouldn’t represent the experienced “English” buy fans have been clamoring for, there is no denying Sakho would have a bright career at the Emirates. The price tag will be high for the PSG defender—rumored to be 20 million pounds—but it would be worth it. With Phil Jones going for over 16 million, Sakho’s price seems reasonable.
The 21 year old French international would be a foundation to build on for years to come. But, just as important, he could contribute immediately. Still, it seems unlikely Wenger would ever cough up such a hefty price.
A purported long-time target for Wenger, the 6’4” Belgian is a hot commodity. Ajax’s financial problems have been well-documented, and this summer seems ripe for a few players to leave for top-flight clubs.
Recent speculation has bubbled over as media reports suggest Mancini and City are very interested in Vertonghen. Still, there is no suggestion a deal has been done and Arsenal remain—until told otherwise—a front runner for his signature.
What he offers: An experienced Belgium international and an Ajax leader, Vertonghen’s experience is beyond his 24 years. He is a tall, tough, left-footer who partnered with Vermaelen before he left Ajax. And, Vertonghen has the ball-skills of a Wenger centerback, with the ability to comfortably bring the ball out of the back.
Moreover, he blasts a wicked free-kick which could prove valuable given Robin van Persie’s inability to rediscover his set-piece magic. Though he is a lefty, as is Vermaelen, they proved early on they could effectively partner each other. And his versatility could prove important as he also slots seamlessly into left-back or defensive-midfield.
Although Manchester City are apparently interested, Arsenal remains a potential destination. While Wenger has stated he will buy an English (or EPL-experienced) defender, Vertonghen could still prove a valuable asset. With his ability to slot into multiple positions, his strength on set-pieces, and his familiarity with Vermaelen, the imposing defender could prove an important target this summer.
He will likely command a lower transfer fee than Cahill or Sakho, while offering needed consistency. A good value buy (if City doesn’t launch a bidding war) but seems Wenger has turned his attention in other directions.
A commanding beast—plain and simple. Samba is exactly what Arsenal need, especially to be successful in the Premier League. He has been the centerpiece of a Blackburn team whose no-nonsense defense (especially under former manager Sam Allardyce) caused the Arsenal team nightmares.
Although not the same kind of high profile target as others listed here, Samba offers value and presents a realistic choice for Wenger.
What he offers: Height, strength, and leadership.
What has Arsenal missed recently in its defense? Height, strength, and leadership. Wow, that’s weird. Seems like such a good fit, which means it probably won’t happen. The towering Congo-born centerback is a force to be reckoned with in the air. He battles the team’s toughest strikers and usually comes out on top. Admittedly, there are concerns about his speed and ability to handle quicker EPL strikers.
However, working alongside Arsenal’s full-backs and pairing with Vermaelen, his speed deficiencies would be largely mitigated. Samba also brings the fiery leadership and defensive organization Arsenal is begging for, yearning for. He has intangibles—forged in relegation battles —the team needs.
Recently frustrating Gooners everywhere, Samba revealed that Arsenal almost snagged him during the January transfer window. As I reflect on Arsenal’s downward spiral following the Carling Cup final, it is saddening to think the team could have had a tough, weathered EPL defender to push through defeat.
Alas, Wenger didn’t buy (or Blackburn didn’t sell) and Arsenal’s season crumbled. On the bright side, it shows Wenger’s intent and admiration regarding Samba. Wenger wanted him in January, and given his relatively reasonable price (around 8 million pounds) he could prove Wenger’s number one defensive target this summer.
Samba’s leadership is critical in rehabilitating and strengthening the team’s image—and instilling a spine in a sometimes shaky backline. This transfer seems more and more likely to happen.
Another English centerback whose name has been linked with Arsenal over the last year. Apparently a major target for Wenger before the 2010 season, with Wenger launching a formal bid, Jagielka remained at Everton.
David Moyes was reluctant to sell his star defender and England international last summer. But with Everton’s worsening financial situation, and a need to get younger if they want to compete, the Scottish boss may change his tone this summer.
What he offers: An English core with a wealth of Premier League experience, Jagielka possesses the grit and toughness Arsenal lack. His versatility is also a plus, as he can slide seamlessly between centerback and defensive midfield. Though Jagielka is not tall for a centerback, he is a strong tackler, effective in the air, and comfortable with the ball at his feet.
More recently he has established himself as a regular in the England squad, highlighting his increasing value despite limited top-flight domestic football.
Last summer this deal appeared likely to go through. However, the window came and went without a resolution. Fast forward 11 months and Wenger is again trying to fix his leaky defense. This time, though, I think Jagielka is not a prime target for the Arsenal boss. As set-pieces continue to plague the team, Wenger has indicated he must bring in taller players. Although Jagielka isn’t poor in the air, a pairing of him and Vermaelen would be rather short when matching up with many EPL teams.
Moreover, the England international has had injury concerns in the past, and Moyes may hold firm—unless Wenger launches a significant bid. This seems unlikely to happen.
I’ll admit it right away: I love this kid. I think he is the future of the Arsenal defense. He has toughness, an edge, he’s big, and has leadership skills beyond his years.
However, he is only 20, and for the past two years has been sent out on loan. Forged in the more physical leagues—the Championship and the SPL—Bartley has grown up quickly. Yet it is unclear where Kyle Bartley’s future lies. If a big name defender is brought in this summer, he could look elsewhere for playing opportunities.
What he offers: He is English. He is tall. And he does well on set pieces. Those three components should be enough to make Gooners drool. Bartley, though, is so much more. He is good on the ball, composed under pressure. His speed, for a player his size, is impressive, and he is a fierce, aggressive tackler. But, more importantly, he is a natural leader.
Despite his age, Bartley barks orders at his teammates as though already captain. Arsenal’s recent problems derive from things other than just talent or positional sense; Wenger’s defense has struggled with leadership, toughness, and organization. Bartley, in time, can be the answer.
Switching from Sheffield United to Rangers midway through the season, Bartley’s stature (amongst Gooners) rose quickly. In only a handful of games for the Scottish giants, Bartley endeared himself to fans, coaches, and players alike.
After playing briefly in midfield, Bartley slotted into the left-side of a 3-man defense, testing both his positional discipline and pace. The kid, however, excelled. By the time of his injury (an MCL tear), Bartley was a fixture in a Rangers side pushing for—and eventually achieving—another Scottish title. Still with room to grow and, unlike any other players on this list, an Arsenal player already, Bartley could have a bright London future.
While the rest of these options represent transfers, the towering Englishman presents an internal solution. The question, though, is his age. I don’t think Wenger trusts him enough—at least for now.
Arsenal will bring in defensive reinforcements this summer; that is almost guaranteed. Moreover, Wenger has made it clear he wants English players, or at least centerbacks with experience in the Premiership. Wenger, however, is still thrifty and will not be held hostage to teams pushing for exorbitant fees.
While I think Cahill and Vertonghen would fit seamlessly into the Arsenal system, it is likely Arsenal gets priced out of buying the pair. Everton will do its best to hold onto Jagielka and Wenger won’t want to stump up millions for a shorter defender with injury concerns. Sakho probably represents the greatest upside of these potential targets, but his price will scare off Wenger.
So, we are left with Samba and Bartley. Samba makes the most sense. He has tormented Arsenal in past years, and can be bought for a reasonable fee. His leadership, strength and toughness will be welcome additions. While I think Bartley has the potential to be an Arsenal centerback, it is more likely he goes out on loan for another year. Yet with a convincing pre-season Bartley may be given the opportunity to be the team’s fifth centerback.
Though Arsenal’s defense is a concern, I am confident Wenger will bring in a significant addition—someone who not only upgrades the talent but also alters the mentality of a leaky backline. Samba in, Bartley elevated, and Squillaci out.
But, who knows, Wenger will probably opt for a 19-year Uzbek who has played defensive midfield in Dubai for the past 4 years. Only time will tell. At least we can hope.