The Gunners have never been in contention for the Premier League title this season, trailing Chelsea by at least 10 points since November. The manager has blamed injuries and a World Cup hangover for Arsenal’s slow start. But injuries are part of any club’s season. And Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchesters also had players who participated in the 2014 World Cup. Let’s face it: the current squad is tailored for a top-four finish but not for a title bid. The club needs a couple of additions to become a serious contender next season. We don’t have much of a choice anyway because you can bet our rivals will strengthen their squads this summer.
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Before we get overexcited, I believe three key factors must be considered. First, any new signing must improve the squad. We shouldn’t hire an average player simply because we need to fill a specific position. Squillaci and Silvestre are the obvious examples of such a poor approach.
Second, any new signing must have a good work ethic and a strong work rate. There was a time when the club struggled so badly for goals that players like Arshavin, Walcott and Podolski could afford to ignore defensive tasks. Sanchez, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain have definitely set higher standards this season. So it wouldn’t make sense to take a step back by hiring a talented but lazy player like Balotelli. That would hurt our team spirit. You also want a player who is strongly committed to his career. You don’t want a player with off-field issues like Bendtner (violent behavior). Szczesny (smoking) a few months ago as well as Ozil (smoking), Giroud (sex) and Wilshere (smoking) last year have already shown that what happens off the field can have an impact on the dressing room.
And third, any new signing must have mental strength. Improving the squad implies more competition for starting spots. We shouldn’t hire players who need a babysitter to make them feel comfortable. Gervinho, Park and Chamakh are the obvious examples of that kind of mental weakness.
Signing a goalie not a top priority
Signing new players also means releasing or transferring the dead wood. A too big squad would affect the team’s chemistry besides fattening our payroll. The first half of our season was derailed by injuries but also by the number of players who were frustrated by their playing time. That’s the reason why Podolski, Campbell and Sanogo were loaned out in the winter.
Here’s the current squad with the age of the players in parentheses when the 2015-16 season starts in August (there might be a few more names added because of the blurred line between the first team and the academy): Szczesny (25), Ospina (26), Martinez (22), Gibbs (25), Monreal (29), Mertesacker (30), Koscielny (29), Paulista (24), Chambers (20), Hayden (20), Ajayi (21), Debuchy (30), Bellerin (20), Jenkinson (23), Arteta (33), Flamini (31), Coquelin (24), Ramsey (24), Wilshere (23), Diaby (29), Bielik (17), Cazorla (30), Ozil (26), Rosicky (34), Toral (20), Sanchez (26), Podolski (30), Miyaichi (22), Iwobi (19), Giroud (28), Welbeck (24), Sanogo (22), Campbell (22), Akpom (19), Wellington (22), Walcott (26), Oxlade-Chamberlain (21), Gnabry (20), Zelalem (18).
In goal, Cech has been linked with a move to Arsenal but it’s not a top priority and I don’t think Mourinho would let Chelsea strengthen a rival. Holding midfielder, centerforward and centerback are positions that more urgently need an upgrade. Ospina and Szczesny aren’t world-class goalkeepers, but Ospina has performed well this season while Szczesny is a decent back-up option. The key for the manager could be Szczesny’s attitude and how it would affect the chemistry in the dressing room. Is Szczesny willing to fight for a starting spot or does he want to be a starter for a weaker club like Fabianski? If Szczesny stays, Wenger should loan out Martinez to speed up his development. If Szczesny leaves, Martinez should be promoted to the No. 2 spot.
Cashing in on Jenkinson’s season
At leftback, we have a healthy competition between Monreal and Gibbs. Monreal is having a good season while Gibbs needs to work on his focus. At rightback, Debuchy’s season has been marred by two freak injuries while Bellerin has blossomed into a very promising player. I’ve been so impressed by Bellerin’s development that it wouldn’t surprise me if the Spaniard gets the nod over Debuchy next season. Obviously, the main danger for Bellerin is the famous sophomore slump. Youngsters often struggle after a breakthrough season because of the weight of expectations and because of inconsistency at that age.
Jenkinson has done well on loan at West Ham but I believe Arsenal should cash in now since Bellerin is a much better player than Jenkinson. Bellerin has the potential for becoming a world-class fullback. His positional play and reading of the game are quite outstanding for a 20-year-old defender. On the other hand, Jenkinson’s technique is limited and his decision-making is questionable, too. In my eyes, Jenkinson is a perfect fit for an average side but not good enough for a contending team.
Loaning out Chambers
At centerback, there’s too much uncertainty to my liking. We have the right number of centerbacks but quality is still an issue. Mertesacker’s positional play is very sound but his lack of pace becomes a problem when the Gunners play a high defensive line. Koscielny has been bothered by his Achilles tendons since the World Cup and there’s no guarantee he’ll be injury free next season. Even if Koscielny is 100 percent fit, his decision-making is still a concern. Paulista, our winter signing, remains a big question mark. The Brazilian defender seems strong in tackles and aerial duels but he has also showed naivety in a few games.
Chambers had a good start to the season before his slow first steps were exposed by average wingers. That flaw means Chambers has no future at fullback at the top level and his future at centerback depends on an immaculate positional play and reading of the game. In any case, Chambers can’t be the answer at centerback for a contending team next season. The manager should loan him out so that he can hone his skills elsewhere instead of wasting his time on the Arsenal bench. Germany defender Hummels would be a dream signing for a lot of Premier League clubs. You can bet his transfer fee would cost at least 30 million euros, but that’s a decent investment for a world-class centerback who’s only 26. I know very little about Ajayi and Hayden but in the most optimistic scenario, they would play a couple of games in the League Cup before being loaned out to Championship sides.
Why should we sign Schneiderlin?
In midfield, we have three different profiles based on the manager’s 4-3-3 formation: holding midfielders, playmakers and all-around midfielders. As a holding midfielder, Arteta struggles to stop counterattacks. He’s also our captain and has a lot of influence in the dressing room. So parting ways won’t be easy for the manager, but in the end it’s all about making the squad more competitive. Flamini is past his prime, too. Why should we keep Flamini when we have a younger version of him with Coquelin?
Coquelin has definitely helped stabilize the Arsenal defense in the second half of the season. The Frenchman covers a lot of ground, reads the game well and is making fewer fouls than in January and February. However, Coquelin’s passing skills and shooting abilities are limited and I don’t think he’s the enforcer that we need in midfield. The way the Gunners were outmuscled in the first leg of their Champions League tie against Monaco was embarrassing.
Some pundits have mentioned Schneiderlin as a potential target but I think it would be a waste of money simply because there’s not much difference between those two players. Schneiderlin is two years older than Coquelin and has therefore a bit more experience, but I believe Coquelin will be just as good as the Southampton midfielder in two years. Of course, Schneiderlin scores more goals than Coquelin, but what you have to realize is that Schneiderlin has more freedom at Southampton than if he were to play for Arsenal.
Letting Diaby go
My choice would be Monaco ballwinner Geoffrey Kondogbia, who’s more powerful and more gifted technically than both Coquelin and Schneiderlin. His performances against Arsenal and Juventus in the Champions League tell you that he’s potentially a world-class player at only 22. I thought Monaco overpaid when they signed him from Sevilla for 20 million euros in 2013, but in hindsight it was a really good deal. Marseille midfielder Imbula could also be a target. He’s one year behind Kondogbia in terms of development but he would be cheaper.
We now have five all-around midfielders since Cazorla’s change of position this season. Wilshere and Ramsey have had their share of injuries, so it was a wise move from the manager. I don’t think Diaby and Bielik will play any role in the first team next season. Diaby has such an awful injury record that it wouldn’t be wise to rely on him for a title bid. No one can seriously predict how many games he can play in a season. Let another club take a gamble on him. At 17, Bielik will probably hone his skills with the Under-21 team.
Assuming Wilshere and Ramsey stay fit next season, Wenger could rotate in midfield to rest Ozil and Cazorla. Does Wenger still want to keep Rosicky as a back-up option in the playmaking role? Or does he want to give Toral a chance? I haven’t seen the 20-year-old Spaniard play for Brentford this season so I have no idea how close he is to the level required for first-team football.
The honeymoon is over
The situation on the wings is pretty straightforward. On the left flank, Sanchez is the obvious starter and Welbeck a decent second choice. Podolski hasn’t impressed on loan at Inter Milan, so a summer transfer seems inevitable. His work rate has always been an issue and at 29 next month his best years are behind him. At 22, Miyaichi is still a raw player and I don’t think he has any future at Arsenal after four seasons on loan. Iwobi is having an eye-catching season with the Under-21 team. The manager could reassess Iwobi’s potential in the summer friendlies and possibly play him in some League Cup games next season.
On the right flank, the honeymoon with Walcott is over. His game no longer fits the team’s style of play. That’s why he’s a benchwarmer. It’s not because the negotiations between the club and his agent are dragging on. Walcott doesn’t deserve any pay rise because there are much better forwards at the club now than the last time he signed an extension. He has plenty of pace but he’s not as gifted technically as Oxlade-Chamberlain or even Gnabry, and at 26 his skills won’t improve. Let’s sell Walcott to get the cash for a top striker. Transfer fees for English players are so inflated in the Premier League that Arsenal could easily get more than 40 million euros for Walcott. Remember, Liverpool signed Carroll for 35 million pounds in 2011.
Proven or unproven?
The starting spot on the right flank should belong to Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose season has been marred by injuries. The challenge for the 21-year-old winger will be to perform more consistently and improve his number of goals and assists. Gnabry, who showed his potential in the 2013-14 season, will be his main competitor. Zelalem may play a couple of games but I still think he needs to toughen up.
Up front, Giroud has been a reliable source of goals this season but we still need another striker simply because Welbeck would be the back-up option if the Frenchman gets injured. I love Welbeck’s work rate but his end product has been disappointing this season. Sanogo could be another option but he hasn’t impressed in his loan spell at Crystal Palace. My guess is that the manager will loan him out again. Campbell doesn’t have the profile for playing as a centerforward. He’s mostly a second striker or a false winger. Same thing with Wellington. After four seasons on loan, this could be the right time for Campbell and Wellington to leave the club. At 19, Akpom is unlikely to have an impact on the first team but it’s worth keeping an eye on his development.
Basically, there are two types of strikers available on the transfer market: proven goalscorers who will cost a fortune, and young forwards who are about to have a breakthrough season. PSG forward Cavani is in the first category while Juventus striker Morata belongs to the second. Cavani is too expensive for a 28-year-old player and not clinical enough. Anderlecht striker Mitrovic is an intriguing name. At 20, he leads the Belgian league with 17 goals this season, but the Belgian league is a much weaker competition and we have no guarantee he’ll adapt to the Premier League.
Contending in the 3rd year of rebuilding
Lyon striker Lacazette has been mentioned by pundits. Lacazette can score from any position and has racked up 27 goals in the French league this season. However, he’s mostly a second striker or a false winger, not a pure centerforward who can hold the ball up and be strong in the air. Should we buy Lacazette as a replacement for Walcott, knowing it won’t solve our lack of quality choice up front?
Some fans have been harsh with the manager because the club has never been in contention this season. I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Abu Dhabi investors took over Manchester City in September 2008 and they waited until their fourth season to challenge for the title, winning it in 2012.
By contrast, the Gunners lost their best players from 2006 to 2013 (Henry, Cole, Pires, Ljungberg, Hleb, Adebayor, Toure, Clichy, Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie and Song) because of the Emirates stadium’s cost. The 2013-14 season was the first year of Arsenal’s rebuilding as we signed our first world-class player (Ozil) since the move from Highbury. Some fans are deluded if they think the club should have been a contender by the second year of the rebuilding, especially with the financial fair-play rules coming into play. You can’t make up for seven years of weakening in just two years. That’s excessively optimistic.
Yet, the Gunners could make a title bid by their third year of rebuilding thanks to the manager’s recruitment (Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez) and development (Wilshere, Gibbs, Bellerin) policy. Obviously, the stars would need to perfectly align. Make no mistake, buying all our targets would cost around 100 million euros and there’s no guarantee other clubs won’t pip us to the post.