Tuesday, April 16, 2024

What Arsenal need this summer – Part 1 (at the back)

My Vital Arsenal colleague Amos wrote a thoughtful piece some weeks back on how the transfer window has come to be viewed. In it, he contests that transfer windows are portrayed and perceived as a contest in themselves. You can see it pervade many discussions around a club’s transfer activity. The actual footballing value, in terms of tactics and player personalities, of new players has given way to the impression of activity or ‘making a statement.’

To borrow a Wengerism, a new signing has effectively become ‘like a trophy’ (not for everyone of course, but for many). A temporary lift during the summer months, something to parade in an act of one-upmanship in lieu of actual results. How you amend and improve your squad is incredibly important, but the pitch is the only arbiter that determines improvement and the training field has a role to play as well as the transfer market. Arsenal’s most important player last season was one we’d bought in 2008 that improved markedly with training ground vigour.

Many definitively judge the success of a window on deadline day without waiting to see how activity translates on the pitch. In reality, nobody knows for certain whether they’ve had a successful summer until the end of the season. Squad improvement should be the first and only condition of your activity and that tends to work best as an incremental process. The work carried out in pre-season at London Colney will prove to be just as crucial.

This is when battle lines are drawn and the shape of a team is largely decided. During the season, games are so relentless that training sessions become more of an exercise in physical recovery. So what are Arsene Wenger’s primary concerns once he reassembles his troops for pre-season training? In a two part piece, I’ll be considering the defensive element of the team this week, with the midfield and forwards to follow next.

One of the first orders of business for Arsene Wenger has to be the acquisition of a goalkeeper with Lukasz Fabianski having joined Swansea City. Damian Martinez is highly rated but still untested at the top level. Wojciech Szczesny signed a lucrative, long term contract recently and you’d imagine the question of Fabianski’s replacement will have cropped up during discussions. The Pole has the club’s trust and I think his improvement last season was reasonably obvious. At his age, the potential for further improvement is there.

I would imagine Wenger will look for an experienced back up, perhaps somebody in the twilight of their career that can act as both deputy and mentor to Szczesny. Of course the manager could really throw the cat amongst the pigeons and buy a top quality keeper in his prime to challenge Wojciech, but I’m not sure I see that happening. More experienced keepers tend to make for better back up because they are less likely to stagnate and are probably considering a coaching career anyway. A goalkeeper sitting on the bench in his prime is potentially destructive for his career and I can’t see Arsenal investing heavily in two goalkeepers with the likelihood that one will either leave or rot.

It seems fairly obvious that Arsenal require a centre-half or two in the market. Thomas Vermaelen’s future will determine whether it is a solitary signing or a couplet that is needed. Out of favour, and with a year left to run on his contract, it is unlikely that the Belgian will be inclined to pen a new deal. Likewise, Arsenal don’t seem to have enough faith in him to continue to make him of the best paid players in the squad. The risk of losing him on a free next summer is very real but Wenger should not agree to let him go until he has acquired a replacement.

The club are in a position now where footballing considerations can take precedence over fiscal factors. Numerically, Arsenal need another centre-half even if Vermaelen stays I think. One can’t help but feel that the ‘business’ issue with our captain’s contract wouldn’t be as prevalent had we addressed the need for another central defender more urgently in preceding windows. If it ends up becoming bad business to lose him on a free, that would be a consequence of failure to plan.

How and who we buy in this area is the rub. Koscielny and Mertesacker is a well established partnership for good reasons. However, in the outfield positions, I’m generally not a fan of buying a player with the intention that they are 3rd or 4th choice in perpetuity. That way lays Squillaci and Silvestre territory. Obviously there are budgetary constraints and logistics of squad harmony that prevent us from buying from the absolute top shelf every time, but I think we should look at somebody that harbours realistic ambitions of challenging the Mertescielny axis.

In the past, Wenger has used an apprentice as his 4th choice centre-half. A young buck with potential looking to learn on the job. The likes of Upson, Senderos and Djourou have previously occupied tea making and photocopying responsibilities in the defence, but given the lack of progression in each of those players, maybe another work experience lad isn’t such a good idea. There’s quite a lot more circumspection required in squad building than just liking a player and buying him.

A few weeks ago, I analysed the task of replacing Bacary Sagna in depth. Arsenal have to think very carefully about the sort of right back they buy, assuming they don’t appoint Carl Jenkinson the man of this particular house just yet. Links to Serge Aurier have been constant, but I’d be quite surprised to see us purchase a roving right back, given Wenger’s preference for caution in his right full back. Historically Wenger prefers his left backs to provide the thrust (Santos, Clichy, Cole), whilst the right back (Lauren, Sagna) is a little more defensively secure.

Of course, we could counteract the presence of two roving full backs if we purchase the sort of defensive midfielder that can nestle in between the centre-halves and create an auxiliary back three whilst we attack. It’s the sort of function that Busquets has performed so effectively for Barca and that Luiz Gustavo does so well for Brazil. That said, as the right sided centre-half, Mertesacker’s lack of pace would become an issue without a more conservative right back next to him.

Asamoah Gyan for instance, had Mertesacker on toast in the channel in the recent Germany v Ghana match with Germany’s right back committed upfield. Sagna was very good at ensuring that no interlopers from the opposition’s left hand side were able to engage in a straight foot race with the German. Lusting after a player isn’t always as easy as admiring his qualities and hoping that they transplant into your team. A good side also makes allowances for its weaknesses and ensures they are offset.

I think this is arguably the area of the pitch that requires the most surgery in the market. Arsenal will need to buy and induct a new right back that is ready for the starting XI because I don’t believe Jenkinson is quite ready yet. At least one centre-half will be required. Project internal solution isn’t realistically actionable here because there’s nobody of note coming through the ranks in central defence. Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs and Szczesny are a well calibrated unit by now but Arsene will need to make sure they have support, competition and a suitable right back to complete the quintet. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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