Wednesday, June 19, 2024

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Vardy)

Arsenal need a clinical striker this summer. This has passed from commonly held opinion into the realms of bona fide fact. Arsenal need a clinical striker like Michael Owen needs a personality implant. Arsene Wenger is fully aware of this too, for this is not a new or recent requirement. The manager has been seeking to bolster the Gunners’ centre forward options for more than five years now, largely without success.

In 2010, he bought Marouane Chamakh, which worked well enough initially as Robin van Persie had another of his injury enforced intermissions. Then the Moroccan’s form did not so much fall off of a cliff as pole vault off of it with mid-air somersault and triple pike. In the great trolley dash of August 2011, Wenger bought Park Chu Young. In January 2012, he tried to bring Lukas Podolski in from Koln. The German club were in the midst of a relegation battle that they were doomed to fail and were reluctant to let Poldi go until the summer.

So Arsenal parachuted Thierry Henry in on loan as a sticking plaster. Podolski and Giroud were procured in the summer of 2012 to smooth the departure of Robin van Persie. For the first game of the 2012-13 season at home to Sunderland, Podolski started at centre forward with Giroud on the bench. That gives us an indication of how Arsene saw those two purchases originally. Wenger has since admitted that he bought Podolski as a centre forward, but realised quickly that he wasn’t suited to the role.

Giroud was only ever intended to provide a sturdy back up option. Since the Frenchman has joined the club, the manager has experimented with Gervinho as a false 9, he bought Alexis and the Chilean’s first three Arsenal appearances saw him play as a central striker with Giroud on the bench. The manager selected Yaya Sanogo ahead of the handsome Frenchman in a Champions League tie against Bayern Munich and in an FA Cup semi-final. Wenger bought in Danny Welbeck in the summer of 2014 (admittedly, only when Giroud had been injured) and more recently, he has tried Theo Walcott as a number 9 ahead of Giroud.

Moreover, the manager has (fruitlessly) pursued Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez and Karim Benzema in the transfer market over the last three years. Arsene has moved heaven and earth to relegate Olivier Giroud to a Plan B role, but Oli has survived by being better than Gervinho, Podolski and Sanogo, more reliable than Walcott, fitter than Danny Welbeck and more available than Suarez, Higuain or Benzema.

The willingness to use Alexis, Walcott and Welbeck in the number 9 role and the unsuccessful attempts to buy Suarez, Higuain and Benzema offer a gaping window into the qualities that the manager is looking for. The bid for Jamie Vardy must be seen in this context; Wenger is looking for efficiency, mobility and availability and has been constantly frustrated in at least one of these three regards over the last 6 years. This move isn’t a change of tack or a dereliction of policy; it’s another roll of a die that has been tumbling for many years now.

In the spring, the triumvirate of Alexis, Iwobi and Welbeck demonstrated the ideal blend of qualities for an Arsenal attack. Wenger often says that Arsenal’s game is based on movement and the aforementioned front three were athletic, kinetic and sufficiently physical. The manager has been scouting for someone that marries those qualities- basically; he wants a Danny Welbeck with a more ruthless edge in front of goal.

We are probably at the stage now where the Gunners cannot afford not to find this player, hence the move for Vardy. Of course, the pursuit of the Goldilocks striker is nothing new for Arsene Wenger- the man credited with unearthing George Weah and Thierry Henry, two of the finest ever proponents of the striking art. Arsenal were at a similar crossroads in the summer of 1998, with Ian Wright having departed and Nicolas Anelka still young and raw, the squad was in desperate need of reinforcement in this area.

Arsenal had Patrick Kluivert in their grasp, but baulked at his wage demands. Manchester United successfully signed Dwight Yorke and the Gunners lost the league by a single point, scoring 21 fewer goals than United. The club’s refusal to break their salary structure pretty much directly cost them the league title. Arsenal registered seven 0-0 draws in the league that season, 6 of them occurring before the January signing of Nwankwo Kanu.

Noting his side’s reticence in front of goal, Wenger took a mid-season gamble on Kanu’s health and bought rangy, woodwork loving forward Kaba Diawara in from Bordeaux. In the meantime, Nicolas Anelka had developed into one of Europe’s prime centre forward talents. History remembers that Wright was sold to make way for Anelka, but the summer long negotiation for Kluivert illustrates that the manager wanted to reinforce but was simply unable.

Anelka’s ascension, fortunately, proved to be swift. Similarly, history records that Vieira was sold to make way for the precocious talent of 17 year old Cesc Fabregas. Yet Wenger spent an entire summer courting Julio Baptista following the Vieira sale, to replace the physical presence of the departing captain. Like Anelka, the intention was for Fabregas was to continue to grow as a deputy to a more senior option. The inability to complete the Kluivert and Baptista deals forced the manager to trust his young charges with greater responsibility and both responded.

At this moment in time, Arsenal don’t even have a precocious young buck to hand the striking baton to. They simply have to buy a clinical, mobile striker. I don’t think Vardy is Wenger’s perfect solution, anymore than Welbeck was, but the move is driven by years of fruitless searching and bidding and the knowledge that buying nobody is the only guarantor for dissatisfaction.

By May 1999, Bergkamp, Kanu, Anelka and Diawara finally looked to be a settled quadrant of forward options. But French duo Anelka and Diawara felt flighty and left. Arsene gambled again. With a shortage of strikers available on the market, he took a down on his luck winger at Juventus in the shape of Thierry Henry. Shrewdly, he also took 31 year old Davor Suker on a one year contract. The Croatian provided an instant microwave option whilst a dejected Henry replenished his flagging confidence and relearned his apprenticeship as a striker.

There is a small chance that Wenger will act in a similar vein on this occasion. Vardy is in his prime and an off the shelf option ready for instant deployment. Wenger might also opt for a younger prospect alongside him, who can be afforded time to develop in Vardy’s shadow without the pressure of being labelled Arsenal’s great white centre forward hope. Though I think it is more likely that the manager would prefer to lay down around £25m on a striker so that he has pocket change left for a quality wide forward too.

The current situation has been foreshadowed since the tail end of Robin van Persie’s Arsenal sojourn, as Arsenal floundered for competent back up in the wake of Eduardo’s injury, Adebayor’s acrimonious departure and the failure of Vela and Bendtner to develop. Andrey Arshavin even did a turn as a centre forward at the back end of 2009. Wenger likes his strikers to embody the ethics of street football. He has said so many times now. He did so when talking about South America’s penchant for producing top centre forwards.

He used similar allusions when talking up the qualities of Sanchez Watt (!) some years back. Vardy is certainly bellicose enough to fit the manager’s description of a ‘street’ striker. After many summers of casing, chasing and volte facing, this move suggests that Wenger’s patience is at an end, this novella is going to have to come to a close this summer. Coming up empty handed is the only scenario certain to end in failure and Arsene knows it.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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