As promised, here’s a bit more on Arsenal and the summer they have coming. A few of these issues will be solved organically (meaning by coaching or youngsters coming through the ranks). Others will be solved by new players arriving. And one or two may require a lot more effort to fix.
1. Robin Van Persie’s Contract
Perhaps no issue hangs greater over the club this summer than the contract situation of the captain/talismanic striker. Yes, RVP has one year left in his current contract, but the club doesn’t need another year of turmoil with a key player. Look at how the Cesc Fabregas nonsense kept hurting the team. Therefore, starting yesterday, Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis will meet with Robin and his agent, Darren Dein, in the hopes of convincing him to sign a long-term deal for what remains of Robin’s meaningful career.
Rumors will abound about breakdowns and about ultimatums and about transfer requests. TRUST NOTHING. Until he signs or is sold, believe little you hear (and believe it less if it comes from The Sun or The Mirror). Dein has proven quite adept at making moves in the media. In the end, Fabregas’ sale proved the club can survive, but in order to minimize the damage, the club must reach a conclusion in a prompt manner.
2. The Back-up Striker
Even if RVP signs his contract and stays, the fact is that the club was too reliant on his goal-scoring form (36 goals in all competitions). Was it any surprise that he appeared gassed by April or that the club’s form suffered as a result? The problem was that there was no striker that Arsene trusted sufficiently to step into RVP’s shoes and do the job. Of the six other players listed as forwards by the club officially – meaning both strikers and the left and right side wingers – the next highest scorer was Theo Walcott with 9 goals in all competitions, followed by Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 4 each. In all, the rest of the 2012 forwards – Walcott, Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin, Henry, Chamakh and Park – scored a total of 23 goals. 23 vs 36. That’s not good enough.
Some of these issues will be resolved by the recent purchase of Lukas Podolski. That said, we have to be hoping that Podolski isn’t just a back-up but a potential starter and difference-maker. That means we still need a reliable back-up striker for RVP. From all appearances, that won’t be Park or Chamakh. It also likely won’t be the out-on-loan Carlos Vela or Nicklas Bendtner. So do we shift Gervinho or Walcott to that central striker role as back-up? Put the trust on rising youngster Benik Afobe? Or dip back into the transfer market for another forward?
3. Other Contracts
I made mention of Vela and Bendtner in that last paragraph. As the season comes to a close, they are but a pair of players whom the club must begin to make a long-term decision on. Vela has had a good year in La Liga and appears ready to make that his permanent home. Bendtner is burning bridges at the Stadium of Light without any idea where he’s going to go next. Andrey Arshavin just won the Russian league with Zenit St. Petersburg but it’s unknown if he’ll move back for good. Vito Mannone wants more playing time and it’s likely the club won’t stand in his way, Denilson didn’t exactly tear the Brazilian league but Sao Paulo wants him back on loan while the Gunners want him sold.
There’s also a slew of youngsters who’ve been loaned whom the club must start to make choices on whether to bring back into the fold or sell. Ryo Miyaichi will likely have a first-team spot next season while players like Pedro Botelho, Wellington Silva, Samuel Galindo, James Shea and Joel Campbell are likely keepers for the short term. But Henri Lansbury and Kyle Bartley are two who could be sold if other players are purchased or promoted.
Last year I didn’t think the club would sell so many players. Today, I think they may have no choice.
4. Midfield Maestro
Even if Jack Wilshere returns by season’s start at 100% of his form, there’s a major need in our midfield for a creative force. For much of this past season, Arsene tried to turn Aaron Ramsey into this creator, but it only led to him trying to do too much. End result: fans got on poor Rambo, who was finally having his first full season since that moron Shawcross broke his leg. Mikel Arteta filled that role rather well until his injury as did Tomas Rosicky, who had a renaissance of sorts during The Great Spring Run of 2012. But neither are spring chickens. There’s a reason we needed Cesc Fabregas and we haven’t filled that hole yet.
Rumors will abound of a big money move for either of Dortmund’s midfield creators, Shinji Kagawa or Mario Gotze. Likewise, expect talk of Ajax’s Christian Eriksen, Lille’s Eden Hazard, Sao Paulo’s Lucas or Lazio’s Hernanes to dominate the transfer rumors pages, websites and tweets. Arsenal need someone who can help pull the strings of attack and they’ll be linked to everyone under the sun – and then The Sun will say they’re all going to Manchester City or Chelsea.
5. Midfield Enforcer
At the same time, there’s a reason why Arsenal keep getting linked with Rennes’ enforcer Yann M’Vila. Alex Song has grown from a purely defensive midfielder into more of a box-to-box presence. He seems more eager to play the killer pass to the forwards – leading the club with 13 assists – than he is in just protecting the back 4 and breaking up opponents’ attack. If he’s going to be developed in that direction, then the club needs someone willing to do the dirty work.
There’s two candidates already at Arsenal who can fill this role: Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong. But both were hampered by injuries last season while Frimpong continues to show an immaturity that may hurt his development. Coquelin seems the more ready to step in. All the same, the need is there for more than just one player who can fill that role – whether that’s M’Vila or someone else, we will see.
6. Sorting Out the Defending
Part of the need for that midfield enforcer need goes to the number of goals Arsenal shipped last season: 49 goals conceded last year in the Premier League, 35 of them away from Emirates Stadium. Sure, that 8-2 loss at Old Trafford made a serious dent on that statistic, but it doesn’t speak to the 4 given at Blackburn or the 3 conceded to Chelsea and Swansea each. (Or how in the Champions League, we gave 3 to Olympiakos and 4 to AC Milan). Some of that was due to the injuries at fullback as well as the absence of Per Mertesacker, who was growing in stature as he adapted to the Premier League. But much of that was due to lapses in the mental game by every defender – including stalwarts like Vermaelen and Sagna, who had some horrific howlers.
Promoting Steve Bould to the top assistant job hopefully means the defense will be forced to change their usual recklessness into a more solid foundation. I doubt we see a purchase for a defender this summer – unless the injury to Sagna is expected to hold him back longer than October. We have 4 CBs as well as 4 FBs and youngsters like Ignasi Miquel, Nico Yennaris and the loaned Kyle Bartley. What we need is more nous and composure when facing opponents – and not to see both fullbacks, a centreback and our defensive midfielder all run up to join the attack and leave the keeper alone and exposed to a counter attack.
7. Back-up Goalkeeper
While he displayed the kind of mistakes that a young keeper can make, I think every Gooner out there was thrilled to see Wojciech Szczesny as the #1 keeper. He exudes a force of personality and confidence that makes the tenures of Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski seem all the worse. Not surprisingly, Szczesny started all but 6 games this season in all four competitions Arsenal entered.
This has created a situation where every other first team keeper at the club wants out. Almunia’s contract expires after this season and he’ll be allowed to find new pastures. Vito Mannone has already stated he wants out too so that he may find first team football elsewhere. Ditto for Fabianski, who has seen his countryman Szczesny take both his club and country spots in a year. He’ll likely sweat selection to the Euros this summer, but must find a regular starting position at another club in order to be in contention for Poland’s 2012 World Cup campaign.
All this wanderlust creates a gap that must be filled behind Szczesny. Youngster Damian Martinez is incredibly promising – many consider him similar to Szczesny at his age. But the #2 GK spot might be too much pressure at this point. An experienced veteran who can come off the bench and take the less glamorous starts while pushing Szczesny’s game forward is what is needed. Please, no Marlon Fulop jokes.
8. Healing the Relationship Between the Club and the Supporters
This one isn’t a transfer issue per se. But to me, it’s as vital as the next multi-million pound purchase. The last few years have been difficult for Arsenal as a club and for its supporters. It’s not just the losing of games or the manner in which they have been lost. It’s not about the trophy drought. It’s about the anguish and the anger that continues to fester and how it’s affected the relationship between the club and the supporters.
The club have done a great job of increasing Arsenal’s worldwide footprint. There are Gooners around the world. At the same time, go back to the scenes at the end of the Norwich game. When’s the last time a “lap of appreciation” hasn’t ended with boos? Remember last season’s “Spend some fuckin’ money!” chant? Or the way that supporters blasted the ticket price hike on Twitter? I understand that it’s easier to ignore them than to acknowledge them – that gives them power by making the anger real. But the supporters are going nowhere – nor should the club want them to.
It’s understandable that much of Arsenal’s business is done behind closed doors and that the club don’t particularly want to share how decisions are made. That’s fine. But there must be an honest and organic attempt to heal some of the rifts and perceptions of the last few years. You can’t have the supporters of the club questioning whether the club’s bigger interests are success on the pitch or making money off of it.
9. The Future
This one is a bit more vague than the rest. Here I’m discussing the plans for the future of the club. There were moments during last season when it was obvious that the pressure was getting to Arsene Wenger. Clearly, no one expects him to do anything other than honor his contract until 2014 – a mere two seasons away. Beyond that, I don’t think anyone’s sure if he can be convinced to stay or if Arsenal must find a new manager. Look at how Dalglish’s second tenure at Liverpool ended and you have to hope that Arsenal have a Plan B for the day when Arsene rides off into that sunset.
Likewise, discussions at the club must take place to consider how the football financial landscape is shifting. Manchester City’s triumph, as well as the rise of Paris St. Germain in Ligue 1, the continued dominance of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United and the presence of Chelsea in another Champions League Final, indicate that the teams backed by big money are not going away and are not running scared of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. On the contrary, the super-rich are dominating football right now. Can Arsenal keep up with the wealthy Joneses? Can they do it without that rich benefactor?
Which goes on to touch the other point to consider: the current ownership situation between Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov. As Usmanov’s Red & White Holdings slowly crawl towards that magical 30% ownership stake, the impasse between the board and Usmanov cannot continue. There must be a way to bring these various, disparate factions into a healthy whole that functions for each party’s benefit as well as the benefit and success of Arsenal Football Club.
And with that, I bid a fond and heartfelt farewell to the 2011-12 season. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!