Whether you’re the biggest supporter of Arsene Wenger or his biggest critic, you have to agree on one thing: that he has lasted 17 years is a testament to his quality. As the Premier League is thrown in disarray by the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the return of Jose Mourinho and the game of musical chairs that’s being played around the league, having someone with that kind of stability ought to make the decisions that need to be made this summer easier.
The other thing all Gooners can agree on? That Arsenal were not good enough this past season.
If that admission hurts, it’s nowhere near the pain to watching the team play listlessly against Manchester United. Or crashing out of the League Cup against League Two side Bradford. Or losing a very winnable FA Cup game to Blackburn Rovers. Or getting turned over by Bayern Munich to the tune of 4-0 in the Champions League. Or…well, you get the idea.
But if the last few seasons have not featured the highs that we grew accustomed to, then at least, this summer we should also be spared the lows of watching our best players leave for direct rivals. This is in part because there are no key players on their last year of their contracts — which is good — and in part because the superstar-level players we used to have aren’t around anymore — which is bad. Even key cogs like Santi Cazorla, Laurent Koscielny or Jack Wilshere are not irreplaceable. (Before you kill me, look at the way the midfield of Rosicky, Arteta and Ramsey functioned during that run-in while Jack was out injured).
With that said, here’s a potential roadmap for how this summer ought to go to make Arsenal once again a championship force in both England and in Europe. (Let’s put on our Football Manager hats!)
1. Time to clear out the deadwood
Every time I’ve said this for the last 3 years, I am told that there’s no way that Arsene Wenger would cull that many players from the roster. At last count, the number of players who are superfluous to the cause stood at nine: Nicklas Bendtner, Marouane Chamakh, Park Chu-Young, Andrei Arshavin, Denilson, Andre Santos, Johan Djourou, Sebastian Squillaci and Vito Mannone. (Aside: notice that the majority are forwards/attacking players. What was Arsenal’s big issue this past season? Scoring goals). The majority of them have been loaned out to some club or other for the past season while those that remained saw limited, if any, playing time. Some of them, like Arshavin and Squillaci, are out of contract come the start of June and will simply walk out of London Colney and off the wage book for good at that point.
But for the rest, it’s time for Arsenal to make a simple decision: lose them for nothing or have them hang around on the wage bill while contributing nothing. Given the high wages that some of these players are on, there is little incentive for the clubs they have played for this past season to keep them. So let’s incentivize any potential suitor. Like a puppy giveaway to avoid having to buy mountains of Puppy Chow, Arsenal would benefit in the bottom line by, in effect, giving them away. If Arsenal tell these clubs that they can have a player with no transfer fee, it would increase the odds that someone — anyone — would take them. And let’s face it: not everyone would get the same interest. Djourou, Santos and Mannone might get more takers than Bendter would. But it increases the odds that they can be removed from the club’s wage bill and gives them a chance to have some sort of footballing career.
2. Time to make a decision on the perennially-crocked
In other words, it’s time to say goodbye to Abou Diaby. It’s not his fault he’s injured again. But even the staunchest of defenders has to admit that any talent that he may have cannot offset his absence nor the roster spot that goes unfilled because he’s still there. Arsene Wenger loves Diaby or he’d have gotten rid of him a long time ago. I’m all for allowing him to remain at the club and letting him rehab until he’s back to full fitness. But his shirt ought to be taken and his spot replaced by someone who won’t miss most of a season.
And it’s not just Diaby, in case you think I’m picking on him. Decisions have to be made on Lukasz Fabianski and Tomas Rosicky as well. Both featured during that late season run-in and performed well, which masks the fact that they spent most of the year on the sidelines. Any club can survive the absence of a good player for a short spell. But the continuous absences of players who can provide both a spark and a change to the season-long grind of a game every few days hurts the club. Not only are they missing that talent, but it also forces the team to play others far more than they should — leading to those other players getting injured. It’s a vicious cycle that Arsenal have to break out of and fast if they are to have any hope of challenging for honors.
3. Find the limit for a transfer and then go above it.
Arsene Wenger is notorious for not going above his valuation for a player regardless of how close or far that valuation is from the price he is willing to pay. There are tales about how Arsenal lost out on players like Xabi Alonso and Juan Mata because they haggled over a million pounds or so of valuation and left the door open for other clubs to come in and steal away their prize. Put bluntly, this cannot be allowed to happen.
Thanks to the infusions of funny money from Chelsea, Manchester City, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, every club is holding out for more money from a bigger transfer. Every player wants a fatter paycheck. Every agent wants a bigger 10%. Every one looks at Arsenal’s standing in the game as well as the new infusions of cash from Puma, Emirates and other new deals being worked out as proof of a massive war chest available for Arsene Wenger. In short, he can’t claim he’s pinching pennies for the club anymore.
If Arsenal are after Stevan Jovetic and he’s valued at 25M pounds and Arsene thinks he’s not worth more than 22M, he ought to pay the 3 extra million and buy him. If instead he’s after Christian Benteke and Aston Villa will need 12M pounds for him, don’t haggle to get it down to 9M pounds. Unless you think they’re trying to take you to the cleaners — asking 20M pounds for Charlie Adam, for example — choose to spend slightly more than before and get who you really want. Don’t be so quick and so willing to get priced out of the players we’re after.
4. Be quick about transfers
The key aspect that protracted transfer sagas tend to miss is the time that is missed while the haggling happens. Weeks that could be spent trying to gel the new pieces into a line-up go by the wayside as clubs and agents stare each other off in a quest to get the most money for their side. Look at the way that the last two years have gone down: the late sales of Nasri, van Persie and Song and the late buys of key players like Arteta and Mertesacker. The team spends most of the first few weeks having to find itself again and losing ground to the clubs around them.
That cannot be allowed to happen this summer. The team must be provided with ample time to develop in order to hit the ground running come mid-August. And I’m talking about both player purchases as well as sales. If a player has no place at the club, sell him early and avoid the last minute impulse to accept him as “good enough” when no other purchase materializes. While the window has yet to open, that doesn’t mean that players and clubs cannot talk to one another. So get at it, Dick Law! If transfer deadline day comes and goes with Arsenal’s businesses all done, I’ll be happy.
5. Target players who are a clear improvement on what we have
The natural reaction to being told Player X is worth 30M pounds is to say “but for that amount, I can get Players Y and Z!”. And this may be true. The question Arsene Wenger has to ask himself is “Are Players Y and Z an improvement on the talent already available?” Let’s put in an example. Is Robert Lewandowski a better striker than Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski? Most people would say yes. He’s a lethal finisher at the highest level of the game. He’s shown up in big spots and big games in both league and tournaments. So Lewandowski would be an improvement on what the club have already. It’s why he’s likely worth anywhere from 24M to 30M pounds – more than Giroud and Podolski combined.
The point for Arsenal is that there’s already players like Giroud and Podolski already at the club. Buying another one of them isn’t the solution – and don’t think I’m picking on either of them. Replace them with Ramsey or Gervinho or any other player. The need is to find a way to bring in a Lewandowski or an Isco. There is a need to increase the talent overall. This is true. But the greater need is for finding and adding superstar level of players to the squad. The ones who can take the game by the scruff of the neck and turn a draw into a win (or a loss into a win). Right now, the only players who can be said reach that level are Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla – more than most, but not enough to combat Chelsea (Mata, Hazard, Lampard, Oscar) or Manchester United (van Persie, Rooney, Giggs) or Manchester City (Aguero, Tevez, Silva, Toure).
Modern football is an arms race. Too many times, Arsenal have been found lacking the big guns. This is what Arsene Wenger’s mission will have to be this summer: find that superstar element that the team is lacking and bring it into the fold.
6. Plan for the future but focus on the present
Given the culling going on at the academy, as well as the potential departures of players who will finally be allowed to find first team football elsewhere, there will be a natural desire to bring in youthful reinforcements. Players that can take the place of others and be tutored and trained with the eventual hope that they will be the next iteration of Fabregas or van Persie. And you’ve already seen some of those links being presented in the rumors of potential purchases such as 22-year old Lyon midfielder Clement Grenier and 19-year old Auxerre striker Yaya Sanogo.
Don’t get me wrong, if the club targets Sanogo, Grenier and any other young players and brings them into the fold, then I will be happy for the reinforcements. But they will take time to grow and develop. Frankly the club doesn’t have the time to wait for young players to find their form or reach their potential. The long drought has made people angry, negative and pessimistic about the club. In order to stop that, a title-winning season next year is a must. The need is for players who can bed in quickly, deliver quickly and help the club reach the heights that it and the supporters want it to reach.
So with all that said, let’s hope that Arsenal are already moving with their plans and know who they want and have begun targeting the players who will help Arsenal be the force on the pitch it wants to be.