It’s the 22nd of June. Arsenal’s summer being “very active” in the transfer market has so far lead to the signing of Carl Jenkinson. And frankly, I’m not convinced that’s even a real person. I mean, “Carl Jenkinson?” It has a bit of a “witness relocation” ring to it. What is Arsene playing at? It’s almost July! When I play football manager I have all the best players in the world on my team by now! Why hasn’t he signed Hazard and Eto’o and a Mech-Godzilla Gary Cahill hybrid already? It’s as if Arsene doesn’t even know how to play Football Manager!
It’s getting to the point where you wonder if he’s going to sign anyone at all! But even as the angst and frustration is growing among gooners desperate for new faces to arrive at the Emirates, I’ve started to wonder; do we really need new signings? Maybe the players needed to win trophies are already playing for Arsenal Football Club. Let’s try to remember, that along with all the poor results, this Arsenal side did beat Barcelona, United, Chelsea and Manchester City last season.
Suggesting that we don’t need to make a single signing will likely go down like a screen door on a submarine among most supporters. It’s impossible to look at what this team has done the past few seasons, late-season collapses included, and not wonder if the entire lot of them should be shipped off to far flung locations. And yet, when I ask fellow supporters on twitter which player in our starting XI needs to be replaced, it’s rare that I get any consensus. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be one player in the recognized starting XI that supporters aren’t willing to stand behind.
Since defense is the area that gets the most attention from Arsenal’s critics, let’s ask the relevant question: are the defenders at Arsenal good enough to win trophies? I’d suggest that they are. Before you leap from your seat in protest, let’s remember that Arsenal allowed the fewest goals from open play in the Premier League. In order to accomplish that feat, you can’t be terrible at defending. Let’s also remember that Arsenal usually play a high line with most of the team camped in the opposition half. That’s exposed our defenders to a fair few counter attacks which are always more dangerous.
Where Arsenal proved themselves to be almost completely incompetent was defending set-pieces. It’d be easy to use that fact as proof that the defenders weren’t good enough, but set-piece defending has as much to do with the other six outfield players and the goal-keeper. Arsenal played with four different starting ‘keepers last season. One of them was the incompetent Manuel Almunia, and another was the un-retired Jens Lehmann. Lukas Fabianski and Szczesny acquitted themselves fairly well, but the constant change at ‘keeper couldn’t possibly have helped the team’s overall approach to set pieces.
The defense also suffered from the loss of one of our most indispensable players in Thomas Vermaelen. We played essentially the entire 2010-11 season without our best defender, organizer and leader at the back. Not only that, but statistics provided by @orbinho show that Vermaelen is also our best defender at winning headers. Thomas Vermaelen’s return to fitness this season will add a true first choice center back to our lineup and immediately improve our performance against set pieces and crosses.
With Vermaelen out, Johan Djourou had to step up and become the leader of the defense. What he did for most of the season was remarkable when you consider that he had never played a full season for Arsenal and was coming off a year-long injury absence. There were times during the season that Djourou looked as good a CB as any in the league. Djourou faded badly at the end of the season but can only improve this upcoming season. If he raises his level, and has the opportunity to play with a more confident partner in Vermaelen, Johan Djourou could prove to be a top quality CB for Arsenal. If Arsenal did sign a Christopher Samba or Gary Cahill, it’s entirely possible that neither would start anyway.
With Vermaelen and Djourou as the first choice pairing in the center of defense, Arsenal would be less vulnerable to crosses and long-balls. That also means that Laurent Koscielny, who held his own in his first season in English football, could continue to improve without the pressure of a starting place. As far as third choice CBs go, he would be one of the better ones in the league. That leaves Sebastien Squillaci as fourth choice or perhaps we would be able to promote one of the younger options instead. Regardless, it’s unreasonable to expect any team to have a world-class fourth choice center-back.
There’s certainly no concern at right-back where Barcary Sagna is the best in the league and while Gael Clichy has shown a penchant for the big mistake, his statistics show that he also one of the best interceptors of the ball in the league. You can’t have the best player on the planet at every position and as far as left-backs go, Clichy is among the better ones.
The defense will also be helped by a season without confusion at goal-keeper. Szczesny will presumably begin the preseason as the unquestioned #1 at Arsenal and provide the first real chance for stability at that position. He got some much needed experience last season and now has the chance to prove he’s the keeper his reputation suggests. Think about how many points were dropped the last few seasons thanks to unconscionable errors by an Arsenal goal-keeper. Adding a reliable ‘keeper changes the entire dynamic of the back four.
Ultimately, without signing a single player, Arsenal will be better at the back thanks to the return of our best CB, an important season of development for another CB, and the emergence of a true first choice ‘keeper. It’s a defense that was pretty reliable from open play last season. It should be even better this season. And with our best defensive organizer back in the lineup and a strong GK shouting instructions behind him, the record against set-pieces should improve
So if the Arsenal defense isn’t the weak link we’ve all come to expect, then the question remains whether we have the strength and firepower in front of them to challenge for trophies. Objectively, I’d have to say yes.
In midfield, we have two of the brightest talents in all of Europe. Cesc Fabregas has created more scoring chances than any player in Europe over the last five seasons and creates a chance more frequently than any other player. (Thanks to Opta for those statistics.) Jack Wilshere emerged last season as the all-action, box-to-box midfielder that we thought he might become in a few seasons. It was his first full season in the top flight and he was one of the best players in the league. He’s now a full international and proved his talent against Barcelona at the Emirates, when he was the best midfielder on either team. In the upcoming season, we should start to see him add a few goals to his other attributes.
Jack’s emergence somewhat relegated Aaron Ramsey to the role of “other” bright young talent at Arsenal. But after a season out with injury Ramsey made his return and showed that he’s still headed for success with his performance against Manchester United. Ramsey was pushing for a starting spot before his injury and won’t sit idly by watching Jack and Cesc start every match. He’ll add competition for places and depth to the squad.
While he’s often injured and maligned by some supporters, there’s no denying Abou Diaby’s talent. When fit and in form he adds a dimension to midfield that few players in the world can offer. I saw him play one game for France this past year where he completely dominated the middle of the park. He’s got one season left to prove his worth, but if he can stay fit and get a run of games, then we have another devastating midfield option.
Then there’s the issue of Thomas Rosicky. Many expect him to be sold. Many want him to be sold. But let me offer one alternative view on Rosicky. He was out of football for 18 months with injury. No player on the planet is going to come back 100% after that. Many supporters wondered if he’d even play that much this season. Instead, he proved a relatively durable option for us this season and while he turned in some dreadful performances, his better showings were all-too-easily forgotten. He’s a player with a terrific work-rate, and he’s Cesc’s best friend on the team which means he plays a role in keeping our captain happy at the club. Rosicky was a massive talent and showed his abilities before his injury and it’s still possible that he could recover the form that made him a star signing after the 2006 World Cup.
I’ve consistently suggested that defensive midfielder is our weakest position. Alex Song is a quality option but he has yet to prove he can play the position with discipline on a consistent basis. Abou Diaby doesn’t seem to have the tackling skills for the position. So that leaves younger players like Emmanuel Frimpong and Craig Eastmond. It’s hard to say what they’ll offer us at this point and it’s pointless to speculate. Behind Alex Song we don’t really have a good defensive midfield option at the moment but Johan Djourou or Thomas Vermaelen could theoretically fill the role if needed.
Looking at the midfield as a whole you can see there’s plenty of talent. Think about it this way; would you trade Jack or Cesc for any midfielder on United, Chelsea, City or Liverpool? I wouldn’t. Alex Song probably isn’t the best DM among the top four midfields but he’s certainly grown into that level. What it suggests is that we have a first choice midfield trio that’s as good or better than any of our domestic rivals.
Finally theres the question of our attack. And this is where I think we can be the best in England. Over the past two seasons, when fit, Robin van Persie has been the best striker in the Premier League. Injuries are always a worry with the Dutchman but the second half of this season he hardly missed a match and hopefully that’s a sign of new-found durability.
Samir Nasri turned in half of a spectacular season and then faded into mediocrity as the season wore on. But the flashes he showed for the first half of the season suggest that he can be as effective on the left or right side of our attack as any player in the league. He’s another player that’s still developing and adapting to the English game and I think he could put all his skill together this season and improve on his 2010-11 performance. Losing him now would be crushing. Not because we couldn’t replace him, but because we have no idea how long it would take for his replacement to settle in. Even if we lose him next summer for nothing, if he helps us win a trophy this season, it’s more than worth the lost transfer fee.
RVP and Nasri are clearly the stars of our attacking trident, but Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott and Marouane Chamakh all have the ability to be world-class forwards. We didn’t see the Russian’s best last season but he still provided substantial assists and goals, including his unforgettable winner against Barca. Should he find his best form again, there are few players in the Premier League of his caliber.
Theo started the season on a goal-scoring tear before injury on international duty somewhat derailed him. However, it seems clear that he’s starting to turn the corner from a one-dimensional winger, to a more refined attacker and reliable finisher.
Marouane Chamakh caught a lot of criticism for the second half of his season. But I would respond to that criticism by saying “what second half?” Truth is, he hardly played. He was never going to overtake RVP in the pecking order and Wenger tried to get Nik as much playing time as possible to keep him from abandoning the club this summer. (Didn’t work.) Arsenal were kept afloat by Chamakh’s goals in the first half of the season and that’s saying a lot considering it was his first season in England. He adds fantastic hold-up play and aerial ability to our attack and those are qualities we haven’t had since Adebayor departed. There’s no reason to suspect he won’t be a major success at Arsenal. He was fantastic for Bordeaux in the Champions League the season before he joined us and I think we’ll see consistency from him this season.
Manchester City have Tevez (for the moment), United have Rooney, Chelsea have Torres and Drogba (for the moment) and we have Van Persie. I’d say we’re doing just fine there. As for Nasri, Walcott, Arshavin and Chamakh, find me four options on those other three clubs that are equally potent. I’m not sure you can?
When you look at our team from goal-keeper, to defense, to midfield, to attack, there’s enough talent to win a title. There’s not one player in our recognized starting XI that I’d consider a liability. There’s not one piece of the puzzle missing. Not in terms of skill or ability. But there’s clearly a missing piece when it comes to mentality. And that’s what makes this team such an enigma. How to you fix a squad that’s brimming with world-class talent but can’t hold a lead, can’t defend set-pieces, and can’t perform under pressure? It’s a conundrum that Wenger must solve. From top to bottom, the Arsenal starting XI is as good or better than any of the three teams that finished above them last season. The talent is clearly there and Wenger has every right to feel good about the group of players he’s assembled. But they need to find some mettle before all that talent proves worthless.
I’d argue that the most important transfer moves Wenger could make this summer would be keeping Cesc and Nasri. They are known quantities and difficult to replace. Even if we sign top players to replace them, there’s no guarantee of what they will contribute, especially early in the season when we have so many crucial fixtures. But other than that, do we need signings? Of course we do. We need new blood. Every team does. And considering the mood at the club right now, some change is required. But when you really examine the players at Arsenal right now, and when you look at some of the transfer targets with whom we’ve been linked, I think you can say we already have better options within the squad. The fact remains, that if we didn’t sign a single player, there’s ample talent to win a trophy at Arsenal right this moment. Which makes the fact that they’ve failed so spectacularly the last few seasons all the more frustrating and inexplicable.