The re-building must begin and Arsenal fans must be patient by D$
I have not been on the ‘Wenger out’ bandwagon until recently but regardless of who the manager is going forward, the focus should be on re-building and development.
I have followed the progress of the players and the team closely and I could see our team evolving into a title-winning side as players who we brought through matured and our key signings had such a positive influence on the team. We finished 2nd in the 15/16 season. Admittedly, a lot of the other contenders were dreadful that year but if it were not for the remarkable, anomalous season of Leicester City, we would have been champions. If ever the cliché of “Arsenal need just two or three big signings” rang true, that was the moment.
Sadly, those two big signings were Mustafi and Xhaka… which have both turned out to be failures. Also, Santi Cazorla got injured early in the season, and has never returned. Our midfield became a liability rather than a strength. We lost the ability to retain possession and build attacks with confidence through the middle. Whilst Xhaka has the ability to hit long passes, he is often careless in possession and doesn’t foresee danger. In fairness to Xhaka, he is probably more suited to playing further upfield as an attacking midfielder, but we are well-stocked in that position. This season the wheels have come off as Mustafi’s poor decision-making is becoming more exposed as his defensive partner, Koscielny, has started to look his age and is plagued by a chronic achilles injury. The defensive cover of Chambers and Holding have shown some promise but I don’t believe they have the physical attributes to develop into world-class centre-backs.
Our opportunity to win the league with this group of players has closed and, to some extent, we need to throw in the cards and rebuild. We still have the nucleus of a strong side but I do not see us winning the league in the next few seasons and therefore I don’t really see the sense in recruiting Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan – They are great players but they are both in their late 20s and by the time our window opens to win the league again, they may have passed their peak. They may be able to help us secure 5th place, or even 4th (and Champions League status) but I would rather us work towards the long-term plan of actually challenging for the league again.
In general, our transfer policy should reflect an understanding of the new paradigm of transfer dynamics. If we are going to attempt to sign players in their peak (mid twenties) we will, for the most part, be recruiting 2nd rate players. The best ready-made players will be snapped up by clubs with greater economic resources – City, Utd, Real Madrid, PSG and so on. There may be some that fall through the net – we managed to sign Ozil, Sanchez and Cazorla who would fit into almost any team – However, more often than not, if we try to recruit from this age-group we will be destined for mediocrity and Mustafi and Xhaka are testament to this theory.
Because of the squad issues highlighted above, the priorities for recruitment in the summer transfer window should be two central defenders and a holding midfielder. And we must prioritise quality and potential over experience. The requirements of a centre-back in the modern game are quite demanding and players of the highest quality in this position are very hard to come by. They need to be fast, big and strong; they need to have a good temperament and good judgment; and they also need to be able to bring the ball out from the back and contribute to attacks. I for one would rather see two young centre-backs, with genuine potential to develop into a world-class defensive unit rather than bringing in mediocre, more experienced players.
Young players are inconsistent and make mistakes and, as such, it is particularly difficult to develop young players in positions that have defensive responsibilities. But I would argue that there are quite a few interesting prospects out there right now and this transfer window is the opportunity to pounce and start the rebuilding. With all the above in mind, I have scouted a few players who I believe we should be competing to recruit this coming window.
There are two precocious players at Toulouse who have caught the eye as they have provided a reassurance to the backline of a very young side –Alban Lafont, a level-headed, athletic goal-keeper, and Issa Diop a brawny, determined centre back. Although they had a reasonable season last year finishing 13th in Ligue 1 with a very inexperienced team, Toulouse have not had a great season in 17/18 and are precariously positioned in 17th, just above the relegation zone. However, it seems that the inability to score goals may be a greater problem for them than their defence as they have only scored 29 goals this season; only two teams in the league, Troyes and Caen, have scored less. Their 44 goals conceded isn’t a disgrace when compared to other teams in the league – OGC Nice, who are 6th, have conceded more goals (45) and even Monaco in 2nd place have conceded 41. Therefore, I don’t think Toulouse’s poor form should have a bearing on the potential recruitment of their two best players.
I do not subscribe to the common opinion that Petr Cech’s career is over. Undoubtedly, he has made some mistakes this season but the defence in front of him has been lackluster and have put him under unnecessary pressure. Whilst I think Cech can still do a job for another year or so, we do need to think about the long-term successor for the Arsenal number 1 and Lafont is a goalkeeper who I think may turn out to be more talented than other touted young ‘keepers such as Donnarumma, Arrizabalaga and Oblak. Whilst he is only 19, he has been playing in the first team at Toulouse since he was 16 and has accumulated over 90 first team caps. Although I don’t think a GK should be the priority, we may think of getting Lafont in before other clubs pounce. Ferguson took a risk by recruiting a very young De Gea (I think he debuted for Man Utd at the age of 20) and Man Utd are now reaping the rewards. I would be very happy to see Lafont recruited as backup to Cech for next season, especially if Ospina leaves.
Diop, a 6’4’’ 21 year old centre back, also has a lot of first team experience for such a young player (over 80 first team caps). Although it is his outstanding physical attributes that stand out as he is big, strong and fast, I am just as impressed by his defensive technique, temperament and leadership qualities. Whilst competent with the ball at his feet, he isn’t going to be a Hummels-like, ball-playing centre-back. His strength lies in his ability to stop all types of attackers – He is strong in the air, he can cover the ground, and he has great closing speed and tackling judgment. Moreover, he has been trusted with the armband on many occasions suggesting he has the leadership qualities that our backline has needed so desperately.
Another centre-back who we should consider is Dayot Upamecano who at just 19 has nearly 50 caps for RB Leipzip, a very succesful team in the Bundesliga, and he had nearly 30 first team appearances at RB Salzberg before he moved to Germany. To have played such a pivotal role at such a tender age in a team that is currently 5th in the Bundesliga and finished 2nd last year suggests that he is destined for greatness. Will RB Leipzip be willing to part with him? They will already be losing Naby Keita in the summer so they may not want to lose two important players in one window but I would hope that Arsenal would flash the chequebook if required. He ticks all the boxes.
Malang Sarr is another option. Still only 19, he debuted for OGC Nice in 2016 and has notched up over 50 first team caps. He was pivotal in OGC Nice finishing 3rd in Ligue 1 last year. His greatest strengths are his positioning, anticipation and ability to read the play – areas that our current, more experienced CBs seem quite deficient. He is not the tallest defender (just under 6 foot) but he rarely gets beaten in the air – he is strong, athletic and very fast. He is also very good with the ball at his feet and being left-footed is also an advantage, as he would feel more comfortable on the left of a centre-back pairing. Interestingly, Sarr has recently been left out of the side to make way for Santos Marlon, who is on loan from Barcelona, so this could be the window that Sarr decides to move on.
Another young French prospect is Clement Lenglet who, at the age of 22, is in his second year at Sevilla, having already played over 80 times for the first team at Nancy in Ligue 1 and 2. Like Sarr, Lenglet is a left-footer so he would give our backline more balance. He is a cultured centre-back with elite distribution and no obvious weaknesses.
Jonathon Tar of Leverkusen may also come into consideration but, as he has just signed a long-term contract, and the fact that he has already played 3 times for Germany, he may be too difficult to sign. If he were to be sold this window, he is a little further along the line of development than some of the others and he would probably already be out of our league.
There are a few other interesting prospective defensive re-enforcements out there such as Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Ruben Dias (Benfica) and there are two very good young centre-backs at SC Freiburg – Marc-Oliver Kempf and Çağlar Söyüncü – who I would have my eye on.
In shifting focus to the midfield, I want to emphasise a point that I have made on this blog before. I believe that technical ability and football intelligence are the most important attributes for midfielders. I think that many pundits and commentators wrongly prioritise physical attributes in this position. I acknowledge that we have lacked a physical presence in the midfield since Vieira left but that doesn’t mean that we should recruit meatheads! I have debated people on this blog who were adament that we should bring in the likes of Wanyama or Fellaini before they ended up at Spurs and Man Utd respectively and I feel I have been vindicated. Although both players undoubtedly add a physical presence to their teams, they don’t have the ball-retention ability, range of passing, and football intelligence to facilitate attacks. Fellaini’s deficiencies are perhaps more obvious but I think Spurs have struggled to break down teams with a midfielder who can only pass side-ways. If Eriksen isn’t in their side, there is a clear chink in the supply chain to their potent forward line.
One player who I think has all the necessary qualities of a world class midfielder and who has, to some extent, flown under the radar is Pablo Fornals. He is a well-rounded, versatile midfielder with fantastic quality on the ball. He has exquisite vision and range of passing, which has helped him acquire 8 assists this season (that is third in the La Liga behind Messi and Sisto). Although often used as an attacking midfielder, he is robust enough to play in that deeper-lying role – he has good positional sense and can tackle. At 22, he is at a great age to recruit and he would add class and intelligence to our flailing midfield.
Another bright star in the galaxy of La Liga is Dani Ceballos and although his trajectory has plateaued a bit this season, he would be a great addition to our squad. He showed fantastic quality at Betis but hasn’t been able to get much game time since signing for Real Madrid. Still only 21, if he decides he wants more first-team opportunities, I would welcome him at Arsenal.
I have also been impressed by what I have seen of Lucas Torreira. The nuggety Uruguayan has been a tenacious presence in the Sampdoria midfield this season and his recent inclusion in the Uruguyan team has coincided with a string of victories. His weakness is that he is only 5’6’’ but he is none-the-less a ferocious tackler and he has the agility and presence of mind to foil opposition attacks. He also has great quality on the ball and if he were on a team that had better speed and movement in the forward line, he would be able to use his passing ability to greater effect. When he plays for Uruguay, for example, he has the ability to use and showcase his full skill-set.
This may slightly contradict my earlier assesment of the qualities that we should be looking for in a midfielder, but I think we should also have a close look at the performance of Denis Zakaria for Switzerland in the world cup. His strengths are undoubtedly his physical attributes as he is 6’3″, fast and aggressive and his protection of the backline this season has helped propel Gladbach to a very respectable 8th position in the table. He doesn’t seem to have the passing range and technical ability of some of the other names that I have mentioned but he seems to play within himself at times. He rarely sprays long, hopeful balls and some might consider this a sign of discipline – he rarely gives the ball away. He does have the ability to run with ball and it is thrilling to watch him intercept an opposition pass and turn defence into offence so rapidly. He is one to watch.
What do you think of those possible recruits that could come at a reasonable price to help Arsenal challenge for the title in the future?