Three reasons why Arsenal need more signings to challenge
Three reasons why Arsenal need to make more signings to launch Premier League title challenge
Capitalise on a position of strength
The style in which Arsenal finished the last Premier League campaign suggested that Arsene Wenger might finally have assembled a team to mount a challenge for more than just their customary prized Champions League spot. Subsequent to their derby day defeat at Tottenham on 7 February, the Gunners were beaten just once in their final 14 outings. As well as a few contemptuous beatings of the division’s lesser lights – something Wenger’s side specialise in – that prosperous three month streak included a demolition of Liverpool, a grinding win over Everton and disciplined victories on the road at the likes of Crystal Palace and Burnley. It was the sort of form to hint that Arsenal could be developing into a unit for all situations, ready to discard the ‘flat-track bully’ image that has dogged them since their move from Highbury to The Emirates Stadium in 2006. The performance that had people sitting up and taking notice of the Gunners, however, came in a 2-0 win at Manchester City early in the new-year. On their visit to The Etihad Stadium, where they had shipped six goals on a humiliating afternoon the previous season, Wenger’s men were everything we expect them not to be; never wavering from a game-plan that would once have been considered anathema to the Frenchman. That plan saw the Londoners uncharacteristically happy to concede possession to their opponents, and also featured a rarely seen intensity applied to the Gunners’ defensive work. Capped off by some skilful, lightning counter-attacking, inspired by the superb Santi Cazorla, it was a display of champions. The only trouble, of course, was that Arsenal’s storming of the defending champions’ castle came too late to herald a charge for the title. In the same manner that they have attracted some derision for going missing against blue-chip opposition, Wenger’s more recent sides are known for hitting a purple patch when the major trophies have already slipped from their grasp. Like the golfer Luke Donald, who is wont to firing a final round 65 to finish deceptively high up a leaderboard that he never threatened to top, Arsenal have slipped into a habit of reserving their best for when the Premier League’s top spot is already being fought out elsewhere. There was something different about the way The Emirates outfit closed their last campaign, though. Seemingly buoyed by the realisation born from their out-witting City that they were capable of matching England’s best teams, the Gunners played with their usual measure of arrogance in the later stages of 2014/2015 but, crucially, without neglecting the uglier aspects of the game. Plenty of credit for Arsenal’s re-invention has deservedly fallen at the feet of holding midfielder Francis Coquelin, the type of player that Wenger has been seeking out for years – and who turned out to be under their noses all the time. Nevertheless, to go into a new campaign, when it will be imperative to hit the ground running, relying so heavily on a player who was on loan at Charlton Athletic as recently as last December, would be folly. Confirmation of Arsenal’s renewed belief came in the way that they comprehensively dismantled Aston Villa in May’s FA Cup final, a stark contrast to the stuttering, nervy win over Hull City in the corresponding fixture 12 months earlier. This is a group of footballers that, with a few savvy additions, is ready to fight for the Gunners’ first English title since their Invincibles of 2003/2004 swatted away all that domestic football could throw at them. It would be a huge mistake, however, for Wenger to think that he can keep his hand in his pocket in this transfer window. The purchase of Petr Cech aside, the north London club have, thus far, kept their powder dry in the summer market, while their likely title rivals are getting busy. Consequently, as we stand, Arsenal will be coming up against a substantially upgraded Manchester United outfit, and a Manchester City team whose purchase of Raheem Sterling is surely just the first play in reacting to their disappointing 2013/2014. Chelsea, the best side in the country, will be seeking to raise the bar again through their familiar top-level recruitment strategy. Speaking on the club’s tour of Singapore this week, Wenger was sounding a familiar note, stating that ‘cohesion’ would be prioritised over ‘miracle’ signings. Arsenal have progressed to the point where they no longer need a miracle to launch a title tilt. By standing still, however, the 13-time English champions would be going backwards in the fast-moving, ultra-competitive Premier League.
Thoughts of Wenger’s unbeaten Arsenal team of 2003/2004 evoke memories of irrepressible flair and imagination, the breakneck speed of their play. Any side going into the fray against this frightening bunch had to contend with the unstoppable front-running of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires’s wing-wizadry, the singular brilliance of Dennis Bergkamp, and the complete midfield package that was Patrick Vieira. With such a plethora of beguiling performers in its number, it is all too easy to overlook matters in the defensive third of that all-conquering Gunners’ team. Across their 38 matches in that record breaking season, however, Arsenal conceded a meagre 26 goals, four fewer than Chelsea, who boasted the division’s second most miserly rearguard. Their goals against column eleven years ago didn’t quite match the stingy 18 that George Graham’s Gunners leaked in the same number of games on the way to the 1990/1991 title. Yet, Arsenal’s hard-won reputation for their teams’ defensive prowess, built on the thou-shalt-not-pass attitude of men such as Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Sol Campbell has, latterly, taken a battering. The 36 goals let in last term was an improvement on the 41 of 2013/2014, but with such a heavy reliance placed on Coquelin to screen their back-four, there remains a sense that the Gunners’ new-found defensive resolve is either an injury to the Frenchman or one off-key afternoon away from unravelling. All the signs point towards Wenger starting the new campaign with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker as his first-choice centre-half halves. The same duo was on duty on that day in December 2013, when Arsenal were hit for six at City. Indeed, in that same season the French/German pairing started in their side’s similarly harrowing thumpings at the hands of Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0). Koscienly and Mertesacker could fairly plead mitigating circumstances on each occasion: a total absence of any protection from their midfield, Gunners’ full-backs recklessly abandoning their posts to leaves the centre-backs exposed, and a goalkeeper behind them in Wojcieh Szczesny who lacks the presence demanded of top-class glovesmen. Nevertheless, with such chaos unfolding around them a seasoned defender would be expected to organise his colleagues, to batten down the hatches and restore a degree of order. It is impossible, to envisage, for example, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand or John Terry and Gary Cahill – and this is the standard to which Arsenal should be aspiring – folding in comparable style, certainly not on a semi-regular basis. With Coquelin acting as their shield, and the Colombian stopper David Ospina in between the sticks, Mertesacker and Koscielny were integral to the clean-sheet achieved by the Gunners on their return to The Etihad last season. The defensive twosome were further assisted in their endeavours on that day by Hector Bellerin, something of a revelation at right-back since he burst unexpectedly into Wenger’s team, and the improving left-back Nacho Monreal. Neither of the current Arsenal centre-backs has the hallmarks of a genuine leader in the mould of Adams or Campbell, however; be that in word or deed. Gabriel Paulista showed tentative signs of promise in the position following his arrival in north London from Villarreal in January, but the 24 year-old Brazilian is raw and will require time before he is ready for the rough-and-tumble of a full Premier League campaign. A commanding central defender, then, should be a priority for the Gunners. So too, an imposing midfielder to complement Coquelin. If the France Under-21 cap is side-lined for any reason, or if Wenger feels his engine-room needs additional ballast in a specific game, then he only has the ageing legs of Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini to do the job. Both sound players. Neither, though, any longer up to scratch for a side with its sights set on finishing top of the pile this season.
Never underestimate the lift that a bona fide world class footballer walking through the door provides a football club. In fact, Arsenal will be as keenly aware of this phenomenon as anyone. After years of being lambasted for his perceived penny-pinching, Wenger threw off the shackles when he forked out £42.4m for Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Ozil in 2013. The German wasn’t an instant success, but, contrarily, it didn’t actually matter. Supporters were cock-a-hoop and the players already at the club were thrilled at the thought of training with a superstar of the world game at their London Colney headquarters every day, not to mention being able to count him as a team-mate, week in, week out. Arsenal, crucially, were viewed as serious players once more. Wenger shed his financial straitjacket again, when he paid Barcelona £35m for Alexis Sanchez last summer – a deal which has proved an unqualified success. Freed from the expense of paying for their stadium in Ashburton Grove, Arsenal’s 65 year-old boss has been empowered to remind the Gunners’ fans and players and, most importantly, himself, of the mighty impact the capture of a premium standard footballer has on the feel of any club. Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey committed their futures to The Emirates in the twelve months that followed Ozil rolling into town. Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere are expected to follow suit imminently. Arsenal is increasingly a place where extremely good players want to play their football – and Wenger has the means to recruit men who fit that bill. While a new defender and midfielder are a must, in terms of importance, the Gunners’ need for a stellar centre-forward isn’t far behind. The under-appreciated Olivier Giroud does a sterling job leading the line for his team, while Walcott and Danny Welbeck lend pace and creativity to Wenger’s attack. Nevertheless, none of that trio possesses the ruthless cutting-edge of a Diego Costa or a Sergio Aguero. Why not target a prolific frontman in the ilk of Gonzalo Higuain, Alexandre Lacazette or Karim Benzema? Arsene Wenger has done a fine job, in the face of some extraordinary criticism, to construct an Arsenal unit that could be on the verge of something special. If the man with three Premier League winners’ medals to his name doesn’t take this opportunity to go all out for number four, then it will be a terrible, terrible waste.