As I write this, photos are appearing of Xhaka at Arsenal who will be our first signing of the season. I also listened to the Arseblog podcast, and they went through a range of players who would leave , who they wanted to sign if they lived in fantasy world. They all sort of agreed that we are likely to need more than 3 players, the number that Wenger used. They also identified that this team was basically broken without Cazorla and no ball playing, creative midfielder replacement which led to a dysfunctional midfield.
Having watched a number of games during the period when Cazorla was out, it was fairly clear that the Cazorla and Coquelin axis worked because they made one super player – basically a Patrick Viera: a player who was able to defend and then turn it into attack in a swivel of a hip launch a pass with a foot that was best able to do. But also what was missing was class on the wings, somebody for Ozil to aim for, somebody who pulled other players and made gaps for midfielders to run into, and of course score themselves. With the players that Arsenal have, the striker needs to mobile and swift – his job is to pull the defence out of shape, and of course be on the end of passes. Giroud does a lot of that but he lacks the ability to go behind players and his mobility lies mainly in those passes around corners. When Welbeck came back then he went straight back in and did what Walcott could have done but failed through injuries and form.
So when Wenger says he needs three players, he is actually thinking about 3 key players rather than pure numbers as pure numbers he will stock with youth players.
We have 33 players and of those that have left, we know three Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky. Two had very different roles from the third – Arteta and Flamini are both base of the midfield, to receive the ball from the defence and distribute. Well Arteta yes, not so much Flamini who just became a destroyer, an ill-disciplined one but one who needed to work with a creative passer. Arteta could do both – receive the ball, look up and begin the attack. Rosicky played higher up the pitch, an attack minded midfield, the link between midfield and attack, either through runs or passes.
I don’t think Wenger will “replace” any of these three. He knew in 2015/16 they were squad players at best, no more. Or if you like, he has done so already – Elneny – a ball playing enforcer, one who has the discipline to watch how the team is playing and fill in the gaps, but has the requisite technique to make the passes and the footballing intelligence to put himself in overloading the attack. It is telling that when he came into the side, we didn’t lose and we looked more balanced.
Of the other 33 players, well I would expect the following to go: Ospina, Walcott, Campbell, Gnabry, Debuchy, Hayden, and Sanogo. Of those, only two are anywhere near the bench: Walcott and Ospina. The latter replaced by, I hope Szczesny, and who will recognise the benefits of being an understudy to Cech but if not then Martinez will take that position and Szczesny sold or loaned out again. Campbell and Gnabry are interesting ones – one had a good season – he came on when he needed to, never complained, and did well enough to have not let the team down ever. The latter is young, had a poor loan, and struggling to find that verve he had before injury. I would like to keep Campbell – every team needs one of those but you can understand that he would want to play regularly. I suspect if a team comes in for him, he will go especially if he has a good Copa America.
When Wenger is talking about 3 players he is talking about midfield and attack in a 4-2-3-1 system: a more reliable and upgrade on a striker than Giroud. Assume he gets Morata, the player currently being linked. Then Morata will be number one striker. Then I hope he will use Akpom as back-up: he has had a good season at Hull and should be given the opporuntity to prove himself especially with Welbeck out injured now until forever – 2016/17 is gone for him, poor sod. However, Wenger did say that with Welbeck’s injury, he may have to rethink the transfer strategy ie the back up role and may not give it to Akpom. I think we were always going to go for a big name stiker anyway.
In the 3 behind him, two places are taken with Alexis and Ozil. This season we had Walcott, Campbell, Ox, Iwobi, and Ramsey. Of those only Iwobi made it his own though Ramsey adds balance when the team shifts to a more 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 formation. I think Wenger’s preference is Ox but doesn’t mind using Iwobi who has equally talented. Ox is injured for god knows how long and Iwobi is young, and you’ve got to wonder if attempting a joint attack on PL and CL it is wise to go with somebody young. I think Wenger wants an upgrade there a maturer player hence the players that we’ve been linked with there: Rhiyaz of Leicester, or more likely Mkhitaryan, the Dortmund player or even Gotze of Munich but you can’t see that happening. But you can see why we are linked with a player such as this – mature attacker who can play 50 odd games a season backed up by Iwobi, Ox when he gets back.
Of the two in front of the defence: the first pairing has to be Cazorla and Coquelin/Elneny/Xhaka but that will change as Cazorla is not getting younger. I think Xhaka is there to replace Coquelin and goes back to my old theory that Wenger wants passers and people who can contribute to the attack in every position even holding midfield. Xhaka can certainly do that and take the pressure of Cazorla (or the limitations of Ramsey) and solve one of the key problems of this season – a dysfunctional midfield. This does leave the question of where Ramsey and Wilshire fit in – I think that they have to show that they can do what Cazorla does (not necessarily in the same way) and ensure that we are not open to counter attacks but can force play. Ramsey had a chance and it didn’t work too well with Flamini and hasn’t really had the chance with Coquelin. But I think Wilshire is better suited to that role – he has the ability to draw players to him and that creates gaps; he has also shown for England he understands the deep lying midfield, play-making position. If he has a good Euro 2016, then can stay fit then, then it will be a question of who plays with him – one of Ramsey, Coquelin, Elneny or Xhaka. Given where it is the propensity for tackles, cards and injuries, there is plenty of game time for them.
In defence, I suspect there will be more game time for the Gabriel-Kos axis with support from Mert and Chambers. The full backs – if Gibbs stays, will remain the same unless of course we look to get a Bellerin mark 2 for the left back position (the Leicester player linked, Chiswell) and I suspect Jenkinson will be used to support Bellerin – Bellerin is undeniably the first choice so having a Gunner-loving as back-up and for cup games will suit Jenkinson.
In terms of bolstering this, then I expect the youth players to fill in the gaps as Iwobi did this season. They will probably all train with the first team and be ready for when they are needed. Of that I would hope that to be:
- Zelalem has had a stella season in Scotland and may well be given a change in Arsenal’s midfield especially if Wilshire breaks down again.
- Toral has had an amazing season with Birmingham and will want to continue with that. Central midfield is a tough place and whilst he was good is he really going to displace
- Jeff Reine-Adelaide – he is French. Nuff said. (Though he is much the same as Iwobi so he could compete with him)
- Dan Crowley – possibly a Wilshire Mark II but hopefully without the injuries or propensity for smoking.
- Chris Willock – by all accounts an amazing winger
- Krystian Bielik – came with a load of hype but has been converted to ball playing central defender rather than as a holding midfielder. I saw him playing and he was very good, very composed. He may well be promoted to defender number 5 in the first team and compete with Chambers.
So far, we can see that there really only 2 more spots – the attacking midfielder along with the striker and hopefully we can get massive upgrades on those.