“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.”
I wrote the above as summer started and we were all looking back upon the previous season. The expectations then were threefold. First, to be rid of the players we had affectionately come to know as “the deadwood” – those no longer contributing to the cause but still drawing a fat paycheck from the club. Second, to bring in players that could replace the deadwood on the squad and supplement the core that we had. Finally, and most importantly, to add the kind of player that merited breaking our transfer record of £15 million; someone who could redefine how the club was viewed and how it viewed itself.
On the first part – the clearing of players excess to the cause – the club was more than successful. It was clinical. Seven senior squad players were allowed to leave, mostly via a free release from their contracts. The list is forwards Gervinho, Marouane Chamakh and Andrei Arshavin, midfielder Denilson, defenders Sebastian Squillaci and Andre Santos and goalkeeper Vito Mannone. Some, like Denilson and Santos, reached a mutual agreement with the club to terminate their contract for a fee in order to sign for a new club. Arshavin and Squillaci were allowed to run their deals down to their end and then were free to sign with another. Gervinho and Mannone were actually sold to other clubs for a profit of about £9.5 million.
If the situation was impressive at the Senior team level, it was terrifying at the Reserves level, where sixteen different youngsters were allowed to seek new pastures. Some of the names, like Craig Eastmond, Jernaede Meade and Sanchez Watt had featured in the club’s Carling Cup affairs or seen time when injury/absences caused their momentary elevation. The rest – Martin Angha, Kyle Ebecilio, Elton Monteiro, Jordan Wynter, Reice Charles-Cook, Samir Bihmoutinel, Zach Fagan, Sead Harjovic, Conor Henderson, Nigel Neita, Josh Rees, Philip Roberts, James Shea – were known by people who followed the club to one degree or another, but were deemed to not be able to cut it. They were allowed to leave and try to continue their careers elsewhere.
This doesn’t include the players who got a loan out. Two senior players, Francis Coquelin and Johan Djourou, were allowed to leave on season-long loans. Coquelin went to Frieburg while Djourou was allowed to return to the Bundesliga, only this time to Hamburg. Add the youth level players who got a loan — Joel Campbell to Real Betis, Chuks Aneke to Crewe Alexandra, Samuel Galindo to Club Jorge Wilstermann, Ignasi Miquel to Leicester City, Wellington Silva to Murcia – and that’s a total of 32 players who left Arsenal Football Club this summer.
(Aside: it won’t receive too many mentions, but when do we start assessing the issues with the Reserves/Youth set-up? We can look at the successes of Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs and still ask how much return is being received by the club for their vast investment. Don’t get me wrong. Most of these kids will end up playing at some club. A few may even end up at the top level. But Arsenal don’t seem to get the return that Southampton seems to get. Let’s remember that we got Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the Saints’ set-up).
The number of players sold/released might have been 33 if Nicklas Bendtner had found a club to sign with before transfer deadline day. His name was linked with a number of clubs in Germany, Spain and elsewhere, but none seemed to materialize. Or, when they did, there was always a stumbling block to scupper the deal. Even then, there was an opportunity for a move to Crystal Palace that fell through thanks to needs from the club as well as Bendtner’s demands to not lose on the wages he earns at Arsenal. Of the “deadwood”, only he and Ju-Young Park remain at the club, incapable of finding a move out at any level.
Here we get into the more puzzling aspect of this summer for Arsenal. Because while some additions were made – three to be specific – they weren’t near enough to cover all the holes created by the culling. The club brought in Auxerre’s French U-18 striker Yaya Sanogo and Palermo’s Italian goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano on loan for the year and re-signed midfielder Mathieu Flamini after he left AC Milan. Sanogo’s move is the classic Arsene Wenger punt on a talented-but-often-injured youngster he likes to make. Think Thomas Eisfeld or Amaury Bischoff. If it pays off in the future, great. If not, no harm, no foul. Viviano’s loan move seems designed to challenge Wojciech Szczesny’s position as the #1 goalkeeper without creating the kind of issues that signing a more established keeper like Julio Cesar or Asmir Begovic would create.
As for Flamini’s addition, it was fortuitous if underwhelming when it happened. He was training at London Colney, looking to keep in shape while looking for a new club after leaving AC Milan when Arsenal’s injuries to key first teamers forced the club to offer him a deal. His first call to action was to replace Jack Wilshere in the North London Derby and Flamini fell back into his comfortable role as a tough midfielder. He harried attackers. He got stuck in. He yelled and bossed his new teammates and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat since leaving 5 years ago. That said, the sense that Flamini’s move happened because he was there and free was tough to shake from the mind of Gooners.
We’ll go back to that sentiment later. Suffice to say for now that Arsenal’s squad additions felt thin. As things stand, Bacary Sagna is deputizing at CB because of Thomas Vermaelen’s injury, Lukas Podolski’s injury has opened the door for Nick Bendtner to get back in the squad as Olivier Giroud’s main back-up and it’s not uncommon to see names such as Emmanuel Frimpong, Ryo Miyaichi, Serge Gnabry and Gideon Zelalem on the team sheet. We have a squad that has issues once you get past the first fourteen names or so on it.
But the truth is this summer was going to be measured against the statements of Ivan Gazidis about the club’s new financial firepower and their ability to make the big money transfers happen. It’s why the club had moved out of Highbury. It’s why the Emirates had been built. All of the penny-pinching and bargain-hunting was designed to give the club the time it needed to pay off the bulk of its stadium/real estate debt and to run down the frontloaded-but-undervalued deals the club had struck. The time was now, so to speak, to break loose of those shackles and flex the clout the club had busted itself so hard to gain.
Only that it seemed like it would never happen. Instead, Arsenal was involved in one of the more confusing transfer sagas ever. First, it made a £23 million bid for Real Madrid’s striker Gonzalo Higuain. It made sense. Besides Giroud, there was no true CF in the first team – Podolski and Walcott being more comfortable out wide, Park and Bendtner seemingly on their way out. Higuain was desperate to leave Madrid after a year of feeling the pressure from the Bernabeu stands. His talent is undeniable, but even the most talented find it difficult when they feel unwanted. The fee was appropriate. It would break the club’s transfer record while being a great discount for a talented player. For weeks everyone in the media and in Higuain’s camp felt it was a done deal.
And then Real Madrid got wind of interest from Napoli, who were flush with cash from their sale of Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain. They responded by hiking Higuain’s price above £30 million. Arsenal balked at the figure and began to look for other deals in strikers. Which leads us to the Luis Suarez “and one pound” debacle.
Whether Arsenal’s representatives approached Suarez’s agent or the other way around, we don’t know. All that is known is that, at some point, Arsenal opted to pull out of the Higuain deal – even as he appeared to desperately want to give more time to the club – and turned its focus on bringing Suarez to Arsenal. All of which was odd given that Suarez was still suspended for six games of the season, had made his desires clear to leave England (and not just Liverpool) due to the pressure he felt from the media, and Liverpool had made their desire to keep him well known. This also ignores the fact that many Arsenal supporters had no wish to see someone they found dislikeable join their club.
The club tabled an early bid in the £30-£35 million range which was dismissed. Then Arsenal returned with their infamous £40 million and £1 bid that seemed to turn the whole world apoplectic. Liverpool’s entire hierarchy felt insulted, derided and furious at what they perceived was a ploy to unsettle their player. Arsenal felt they were activating a buyout clause in Suarez’s contract – a clause they should have had no idea existed. Suarez and his agent went very silent in the English media while reports out of Uruguay and Brazil indicated Suarez wanted out and felt desperate to leave.
Ultimately, Arsenal were left with egg on their face as they found out that Suarez’s “buyout” clause was nothing of the sort. Rumors of a £50 million bid never materialized. While it all happened, Higuain moved to Napoli and got a chance to feature for them in the Emirates during Emirates Cup against Arsenal. And that one pound became a symbol to so many of the lack of wherewithal from the club where it came to making major transfers with big clubs. While I understood the reasons, I felt that people were burying the lead. Here was Arsenal, one of the last clubs one would expect to bid this much money, bidding £40 million on a single, solitary player.
The Higuain-Suarez debacle colored a lot of perception over the summer’s inactivity. Reports of a failed bid for Bayer Leverkusen’s midfielder Lars Bender for £20 million came and went. As the season started, there was a lot of indication that Bayern Munich’s midfielder Luis Gustavo was a target. When he moved to Wolfsburg, recriminations began to fly around. How could Arsenal – one of the richest clubs in the game – be losing players it wants to midtable clubs in Germany? It seemed that Arsenal could get nothing right.
Even the move they did manage to make – the transfer of midfielder Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid for £42.5 million – appeared dead in the water a number of times. First, the player didn’t want to leave. Then, the Madridistas were adamant they didn’t want him to go. There were rumors of last minute shutdowns by Zinedine Zidane. Right until it happened, it was impossible to believe it was really happening.
Remember how I said, though, that a lot of this summer felt like it just landed on Arsenal’s lap? Ozil’s move fits right in that too. First, he became surplus to their cause thanks to their record transfer for Gareth Bale. Then, Manchester United allegedly turned down the chance to take him to Old Trafford. Then he required a Saturday night phone call from Arsene Wenger in German and, because his close national team friend Per Mertesacker got involved, did the move finally happen. What happens if United take the chance? Or if Madrid opt to keep him? Or if Mertesacker was still at Werder Bremen?
Which brings us full circle to the start. I, like many across the Internet and beyond, have been critical of the club’s hierarchy – Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis, Dick Law – for how this summer has been handled. If I’m honest, those criticisms remain valid. Ozil’s transfer, while a great coup, does not erase the slap-dash nature of the summer’s transfers. I appreciate the efficiency with which the club got rid of the deadwood. I’m glad for every player that joined the ranks. But there is no way you can convince me that any of this went as planned. Too many things fell apart and too much chaos was the result for me to think that. The low point of the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa on the first weekend showed the fault lines in the foundations between the club’s power brokers, the first team and the supporters.
The purchase of Ozil does cover up a lot of those mistakes. And, looking at the squad as it’s currently assembled, it’s easy to see why the manager is so adamant that his team is good as is. Because it is. The problem is these are players who are going to be called upon to play anywhere from 30-50 games this season just for Arsenal, between the four competitions the club will enter. Add more mileage if the player is an international like Wilshere, Cazorla or Giroud. Injuries will happen. Suspensions will happen. The unforeseen will happen.
As things stand today, we are relying on Olivier Giroud to remain healthy and keep scoring goals. We are relying on Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna to stay fit, avoid suspensions and remain at a high level. We are praying that Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Thomas Vermaelen come back from injury and pick up form quickly. That’s a lot of bets to be hedging. Is it better than betting on new players finding form in a new club/new league/new country? Maybe. Maybe not.
If everyone’s healthy and firing, we are looking at a Starting XI of Szczesny in goal, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs in defense, Arteta and Wilshere in central midfield, Walcott, Ozil and Cazorla up front as the attacking trio of midfielders and Olivier Giroud at the top of the formation as the striker. That is a great side. It’s a side that can compete with any club on any pitch. We’d also have Viviano, Monreal, Vermaelen, Flamini, Ramsey, Rosicky and Podolski on the bench with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jenkinson ready to step right in. That’s a good side.
Now notice: Arteta, Vermaelen, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Podolski are all out injured for different time frames. Wilshere is still not 100% fit and is struggling. Sagna is deputizing at CB if anything happens. Rosicky and Gibbs are an injury away any time they take the pitch. Koscielny loves to pick up yellow cards. I can pick apart at this team rather easily. Can we do that to other clubs? Absolutely. But we’re not worried about other clubs here, are we?
Let’s not end on a negative note though. I asked at summer’s start for the club to find that superstar element and bring it into the fold. Bringing in Mesut Ozil does that and then some. I, like so many other Gooners, feel that it’s a move that can change the club both inside and out. Is it a surprise that Jose Mourinho torpedoed the loan move of Demba Ba to Arsenal after Ozil’s transfer was all but confirmed? He knows Ozil well from his time at Madrid. And he was quick to see Arsenal as a rival for Chelsea’s ambition.
If Ozil can have the kind of impact everyone is dreaming of, then this could finally be the start of Arsenal’s awakening. Loosed from the shackles while emboldened by Financial Fair Play finally kicking in the teeth of free-spending clubs, there’s no reason Arsenal cannot add another talented player or two every window. Do they need to? Hey, if in January they buy a Christian Benteke and a Benedikt Howedes, I’ll be screaming for joy. The point is, they can do that. And in the interminable summer lull of no news, bad news, rumors, innuendoes and recriminations, we ought to not forget that fact. More importantly, neither should the club.