Assessing Arsenal’s squad
I was sitting in my German exam the other day with time to kill and my mind drifted, as it usually does during down-time, to Arsenal. More specifically, what our squad needs for us to put together a proper, genuine, to-the-last-day title challenge next season, and what Arsene Wenger had to say on the matter. In the aftermath of Saturday’s glorious FA Cup triumph, he had reflected on hoping to bring in two or three players, depending on the potential departures of Lukasz Fabianski and Bacary Sagna, both of which now look unavoidable. Whether he meant two or three if they both stayed or whether he meant two or three even if they left is unclear, but personally I see us bringing in four players, with the departures limited to those two and Nicklas Bendtner also bidding some sort of farewell on a Bosman. But is four enough?
Lots of people had spoken about needing something like five or six, but personally I’m not quite so sure. The obvious places our current squad needs improvement are defensive midfield and up front – I think Mikel Arteta and Olivier Giroud have both done admirable jobs, and have had some really impressive performances this season, but of our strongest starting eleven, their limitations are most glaring, and have been particularly so in the big games, in which we’ve fallen painfully short.
And with Fabianski and Sagna leaving, goalkeeper and right-back will need new blood – Carl Jenkinson certainly has his qualities but I don’t think there are many who would be comfortable with him as our starting right-back at the moment, and as for the position between the sticks, I can’t imagine any of those at the club would be capable of being second choice, although Damian Martinez may well be our back-up next year.
So that’s four positions – goalkeeper, right-back, defensive midfield and striker – where we will need new players, but it’s not quite as simple as that. For example, Bacary Sagna’s departure has more ramifications than in his own primary position. The right-back’s versatility had come in handy several times as an auxiliary centre-back, and meant that we didn’t have to waste money and space on a fourth centre-back who would be sitting around, twiddling his thumbs until an emergency occurred. Sagna only played there three times last season, but his experience was helpful in times of injury crisis, which we as Arsenal fans are very familiar with.
Furthermore, lots of people have spoken about the need for a tricky wide forward, as well as a new striker – perhaps someone in the mould of Pedro, with the pace of Theo Walcott but more of a bona fide winger than a second striker playing out wide, which is the role that Lukas Podolski and Walcott have filled this season. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry can both fill that role, which is why others disagree that a winger is needed, but it’s certainly debatable.
What helps us is that, while we have four positions in absolute need of strengthening, two further positions are only potential areas that may require a little strengthening. This is partly why I hope, and expect, us to go for versatile players – if we sign a right-back capable of playing at centre-back (or a defensive midfielder capable of playing there, as Alex Song once did for us and now Javi Martinez does for Bayern…) and a pacy striker capable of playing out wide, and then fill the remaining key positions as normal, we’ll have signed four players but strengthened six areas of the team. That’s why I’m expecting Arsene to target versatile players, as it keeps squad turnover to a minimum, which he is always keen to do. On top of that, versatile players give you a wider skillset – if players have the attributes to play in more than one position to a high standard, they’ll be a more well-rounded player than one capable of performing in only one position.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that we appear to be targeting Serge Aurier of Toulouse. I can’t vouch for his versatility myself, but a quick check of his page on WhoScored.com indicates that he’s roughly spent half of the past season playing as a right wing-back and the other half as a centre-back in a three man defence. Another linked target, Carlos Vela, also checks the box of versatility, being capable of playing across the front-line. And at £3.5 million, he’d be a snip.
Personally, I like the idea of going for Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona, with the Catalan club supposedly open to offers for him and the afore-mentioned Pedro (I won’t go into the question of Fabregas…) – I really do think we’d be silly not to try for one of the two. Sanchez would be my preference, given that he could play through the middle or, as he’s done more often for Barcelona, out wide. Honestly, I think Giroud’s done a great job in most games this season, but it’s clear we need a different option, mostly for big games. For that reason, and those outlined above, I think it’s a good idea to go for a player who can play across the front-line, rather than just through the middle, also allowing for more potential squad rotation.
People may call me crazy for this, but I honestly think we’ve missed Gervinho this season. His ingenuity and unpredictability have served Roma well this season, and last year he scored more goals in big games while playing through the middle than Giroud – his beautiful swivel and half-volley against Chelsea at the Emirates was a thing of beauty. I also recall him causing havoc through the centre against Man City at the Etihad, even if his finishing left something to be desired.
That’s why I think we should go for somebody like Gervinho, but with more of a clinical edge – good at dribbling, crossing, quick, capable of playing out wide or through the middle and a clinical finisher. Vela admittedly fits that mould, and would be incredibly cheap, but as I said above, the idea of Alexis Sanchez excites me more, just because he appears to be the more talented player and I want us to be aiming as high as possible.
I think it’s a little too soon for Vela, personally – I’m not sure I see him as a first-choice forward for us yet, but I think if he stays at Real Sociedad for one more year, he’d be a great replacement for Podolski eventually. Like I said, I’m keen on the idea of a forward like Sanchez, and I think more than four additions would be pushing it in terms of integrating new players (we only have to look across the road for the dangers of too many signings at once) and I think Podolski still has a role to play next season – his return at West Ham and his statistics over the last month or so, despite his Wembley no-shows, demonstrated that. However, I think one more season is the best we can hope for from him, and then would be a great time to bring in Vela as a versatile option to play 20 or so games per season, as well as a potential impact player.
Looking backwards towards defensive midfielder, I’m quite set on the idea of prising Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton. I’ve been impressed with him whenever I’ve seen him, and watching videos of his season on YouTube (scoff all you like, you can learn a thing or two about a player on there) increased my good impression of him. He’s a very modern deep-lying midfielder, capable of carrying out defensive duties impeccably, with good reading of the game, tackling and strength, but also more than happy to foray forward and showcase his excellent control of the ball and impressive range of passing.
It’s probably true that Victor Wanyama gives him a lot of help in the defensive side of the game, but Mikel Arteta wasn’t seen as a naturally defensive player and, other than his increasing physical limitations, has done a very good job. I think Schneiderlin would be an upgrade in almost every way, and perfect for our system: a strong, tall midfielder capable of setting the tempo, controlling the game from deep, starting attacks and vitally screening the defence, with a little help from box-to-box dynamo Aaron Ramsey of course.
If we were to sign Aurier, Sanchez and Schneiderlin, and bring in a back-up goalkeeper – let’s say Viviano for argument’s sake, and I do think it’s a possibility – our squad would look something like this…
Aurier — Mertesacker — Koscielny — Gibbs
Jenkinson — Aurier — Vermaelen — Monreal
Ramsey — Schneiderlin
Wilshere — Arteta
Walcott — Ozil — Cazorla
Chamberlain — Rosicky — Podolski
And then we’d have the likes of Damian Martinez, Mathieu Flamini, Serge Gnabry and Yaya Sanogo backing that core of 21 up in case they’re needed, also getting some vital experience whenever possible. To me, that represents a strong squad with plenty of quality and also plenty of potential for rotation. Last season we were only seven points off first place, and if we had held on to winning positions against Everton, Southampton and Swansea that would have been reduced to one point (although of course it doesn’t quite work like that). But if we can keep our players fit, use the FA Cup win to spur us on and grow as a team, I don’t think we need anymore than some choice strengthening to really go for the league. Let me know what you think.