Saturday, September 23, 2023

Striker It Lucky

Reports of Arsenal´s interest in Kylian Mbappe have surprised many given the size of the proposed fee and the fact that most European superclubs will seriously case his signature this summer. However, anyone that has followed the breadcrumbs of Wenger´s transfer trail over the last 4 years or so should not be taken aback by the manager´s reported largesse.

Put simply, Arsenal have been pursuing a genuinely top class centre forward for some time. Approaches for the likes of Higuain, Suarez and Benzema have not borne fruit, but lay Wenger´s intentions bare. Lacazette and Vardy were also pursued, but not quite as seriously. Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez have been purchased late in transfer windows in order to beef up the numbers, but Arsene seemed to harbour reservations before pulling the trigger on both.

If Arsenal were somehow able to attract Mbappe, the club likely know that they would be providing him with a stepping stone to a superclub. Indeed, they are probably trying to sell the move to him on that basis. Wenger can still trade on tales of George Weah, Nicolas Anelka, Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry when it comes to striker development.

Indeed, when Arsenal approached Luis Suarez, they probably knew that Barcelona would prove to be his ultimate destination. But no team has looked equipped to dominate the Premier League since Alex Ferguson retired. Arsene probably reasons that just one season with an elite striker might be enough to win Arsenal the Premier League again.

I think the manager is happy enough to call upon Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck as options, but he has not demonstrated continued faith in either. Both are normally used according to the tactical specifications of a single game, but neither is the go to choice. There has been a lot of rotation of Arsenal´s centre forward options.

Walcott has traded in on his long term wish to be a central striker and Wenger bailed on the Alexis experiment at the first sign of trouble, which suggests that he never truly believed in it as a long term solution. Walcott, Giroud, Welbeck and Alexis, for the time being, are all still at the club. There has been no churn in personnel, but significant malleability when it comes to Arsene´s preferred choice.

There has been plenty of churn in personnel in midfield, as Arsene continues to struggle to find a long term partnership in the engine room. But upfront, the manager´s machinations are borne more out of particularity. All of which tells you that he is keeping a seat warm for an external solution that he does not currently have.

If Arsenal are genuinely offering some of the sums touted for Mbappe, that constitutes virtually all of the club´s available budget for this summer, which tells you how seriously he regards the procurement of a world class striker. From here, he would probably be willing to fund additional purchases through existing player sales.

I have long held the belief that what Arsenal truly lack is a secondary playmaker. Basically, a more established and senior version of Alex Iwobi. The Gunners are a dysfunctional team without this kind of player and, browsing at the market, I think a top class creator is a more realistic notion than a top class goalscorer.

A centre forward would not fix any of the team´s more functional issues, but I think Wenger believes, not unreasonably, he can shortcut some of those problems with a talisman. Generally, the Gunners rarely struggle to create chances, even if it can be a bit of a slog on occasion. Arsenal´s 2011-12 team was held together with string and prit stick and its principal creator was Alex Song.

But Robin van Persie´s ruthless streak in front of goal minimised those structural problems. Arsene has opted for shared responsibility in the scoring stakes since then- a move probably borne out of necessity. However, I think the manager is looking to hit the sweet spot of having a genuine talisman that does not cause his teammates to hunker in his scoring shade.

Arsenal became too reliant on van Persie as they were once too reliant on Ian Wright. Loathe as I am to constantly hark back to the Invincibles era, the manager will want to recreate what he had with Thierry Henry. A 30 goal a season striker that allowed room for the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord to flourish.

This is why mobility is a key ingredient in Wenger´s genie striker. Giroud is more reliable in front of goal than Welbeck and Arsene seems to have a bit of a soft spot for the Frenchman. But there is little doubt that the team functions more smoothly with Welbeck upfront. Movement is crucial not just so Striker X can sniff out chances for himself, but so his teammates can creep into the area unnoticed.

The movement of Anelka created a lot of space for Overmars and Henry´s frequent dances into the channels lit the runway for Pires and Ljungberg. I am certain that Arsene dreams of Mbappe´s snaking runs creating a diversion for Alexis and vice versa. Whether that reverie makes the leap into reality remains fanciful, but it is no surprise to me that it forms the core objective of the summer ahead of the team´s more technical issues.

It is obvious how important Wenger regards firepower in the quest for the big prizes. In the immediate aftermath of the 2013-14 season, which the Gunners led for many months, he lamented, “To be completely honest as well, City and Liverpool scored 100 goals, so you have to say that their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic. We have scored 66 and that’s certainly where we have room for improvement.”

Chelsea have Diego Costa, Spurs have Harry Kane, United have Ibrahimovic, City have Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Even Everton have Lukaku. Of Arsenal´s immediate competitors, only Liverpool share a vacancy for a convincing world class striker. It is not difficult to see why Arsene sees this position as something of a shortcut to the top.

I think Wenger believes that he can live with some of the team´s other flaws, or at least, that a genuine goalscorer will give him enough breathing space to work on them during the season without dropping precious points. The club´s recent cup success shows that, with enough time and space to plan, the team is capable of executing a one off gameplan against big opponents on occasion.

But a gold standard striker allows the team to collect points when it is not at its blistering best. Bertie Mee once said that it is only possible for a team to play at the ultimate zenith of its game on a maximum of 6 or 7 games in a season. Whether or not you challenge for the title  therefore, depends on how you handle the others.

The Invincibles, contrary to popular memory, did not routinely churn out 10 out of 10 performances. Quite often they were solid and a bit ordinary and Thierry Henry provided just enough pixie dust to see them through. Whether Arsene manages to land Mbappe is open to doubt, but his interest and largesse should not surprise anyone.

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