If it wasn’t already as clear as day that Van Persie will be leaving Arsenal this summer, his exclusion from the club’s Asia tour sweeps away any lingering hopes of a U-turn from the Dutch striker. I harbour absolutely no resentment for a professional, at the peak of a limited career, switching clubs for more money and greater chance of success. What rankles with me (and most Arsenal fans I’ve spoken to) is the carefully worded and manipulative nature of his departure, and how questioning the manager’s ambition significantly weakens our negotiating position, as we can’t keep a mutinous player at the club. If he truly was a ‘fan’ (which he isn’t – fan’s don’t leave), as he’s claimed in the past, he would not have publicized his thoughts, kept his council, and allowed Arsenal to absolutely maximize their return in transfer fees.
However, the RVP situation is an argument that has already been thoroughly raked over, and one I don’t wish to bring up again. What I did want to focus on, as I seem to try and do each summer, to combat the inevitable gloom and wailing of the departure of key squad member, is looking ahead to the new season with an air of cautious optimism.
Losing your best player and captain undoubtedly weakens the squad, but the replacements of Podolski and Giroud, while neither is in the same class as Van Persie, will at least afford Arsenal more depth and back-up across the front-line. Giroud seems like a much more natural fit as a central target man than Van Persie, and Podolski’s ability to cut inside and his all-round finishing ability should contrast nicely to the pace of Gervinho on the left, coupled with the pace and directness of Walcott/Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right, there is at least now back-up and competition in each of the three key forward areas, while each of those players brings something a little different to their game. Hopefully this will see a little more variety in the way Arsenal play, and less emphasis on just giving the ball to Van Persie and hoping for the best.
Centrally, I’d like to see one more body come in – I have reservations over M’Villa – at £18 million that seems very expensive for someone who by all accounts, had a distinctly below average season last year. It’s been mentioned that Arsenal are in need of another holding midfielder – I’d argue that greater creativity further up the field is of a more pressing concern. The dual axis of Arteta and Song are capable of effectively screening the back-four, and the Spaniard’s discipline is one of the reasons why Song had a much greater licence to roam last season than before – because he knew that when he did attack, he has Arteta covering back him. The industry, ball-retention ability and passing skills of Arteta ensures that, in my mind, his contribution to the team as a whole would be greater than replacing him with a defensive bruiser like Cheik Tiote or Lassana Diarra.
There have been some recent rumours (nothing more than conjecture at this stage) that a bid has been made for Santi Cazorla, which would be a superb addition – he’s an absolutely class act through and through, and would go some way to filling the sizeable creative hole left by Cesc’s departure. However, I do get the very strong sense of déjà-vu when comparing this potential deal to our pursuit of Juan Mata last year, who was pretty much in the bag, before Chelsea gazumped us with a huge financial offer we couldn’t compete with, so if this is on the cards, it needs to be done quickly and with as minimal fuss as possible
Of course this is forgetting the return of one Jack Wilshere, who after a season out must be chomping at the bit to start playing competitive football again. One of the challenges for the Arsenal coaching staff and medical team will be to ensure Wilshere’s re-introduction to the team is handled sensibly and with a great deal of care – It’s been seen all too many times before when a player rushes back from injury only to over-exert himself and further exacerbate the previous condition, leaving him, the fans and the club even more frustrated. Some of the hype surrounding Wilshere from certain sections in the media is remarkable at times – this is a guy who is not yet 20 being lauded as the saviour of English football thanks to a promising 9 month spell and an excellent game against Barcelona. He has all the ingredients to be a potential England star (and future captain), but at this stage, he needs to focus on regaining fitness and match-sharpness, and proving that the fearless tenacity and desire that he displayed so wonderfully in his opening season, was not a flash in the pan.
In defence, things look relatively more settled. Although many have their doubts over whether Mertesacker has the pace and change of gear to succeed in the Premier League, Wenger is clearly a big fan of the German, but one would hope that he sticks with Vermaelen and Koscielny as his first choice centre-back pairing. Koscielny’s rise to prominence in this Arsenal team has been remarkable (after Van Persie he was surely the first name on the team sheet last season), and while Vermaelen’s defensive positioning has proved suspect in the past, his aerial threat, driving runs from the back and goal-scoring ability have proven to be game changers several times.
Out-wide, Sagna is still arguably the most complete right-back in the division, although his fitness and potential availability remain a concern, with only the raw Carl Jenkinson as back-up. On the left, it will be an interesting battle to see whether Gibbs or Santos starts as first choice. Gibbs will probably get the nod initially – he’s slightly more disciplined defensively, and is faster and more experienced to the Premier League, but Santos’ thunderous shot and smart link up play further-forward are also worth considering (Gibbs would never have scored the same goal that Santos did against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for example) and one hopes that the competition between the two will drive them both to continue improving the weaker areas of their game.
Szczesny will clearly start the campaign as the number one choice, but with both Mannone and Fabianski set to leave the club, a back-up keeper of some sort is needed, which is always a difficult role to fill when you’re essentially trying to find someone to sit on the bench for a year. Rumours of a bid for Hugo Lloris strike me as complete nonsense however – you don’t spend 18 months putting faith and building confidence into a young, talented, but still raw keeper, only to spend 18 million on (albeit quality) goalkeeper, money which could be spent far better elsewhere.
Rather than the focus on bringing in more players, now that Giroud and Podolski have been acquired, the much more pressing priority is shifting out the expensive, squad filling deadwood that is bloating this Arsenal side. Bendtner, Chamakh, Park, Squillaci, and Arshavin, all of whom are on substantial wages, need to be shifted off the wage bill as soon as possible, even if doing so means the club has to take a financial hit in the transfer fees they would normally expect to receive. One of the most glaring faults from last season’s campaign was the lack of contribution to the team from so many players around the fringes (cue the over-reliance on Van Persie) – New blood needs to be brought in over-time, but there simply isn’t enough squad places, or a big enough budget to make this happen while the above players are still on the books and being paid handsome salaries.
Walcott’s situation, while delicate, is not as critical as most commentators have suggested, given his exorbitant salary demands. I rate Walcott highly, and his return of 11 goals and 12 assists last year is commendable, but this is a player who, in his own words, is ‘consistent in patches’, and who hasn’t quite lived up to the potential that many had for him when he netted his hat-trick in Croatia in 2009. I find it difficult to see anyone outside the billionaire backed clubs to offer him the re-numeration he will need to leave, and those clubs that can afford him, already have superior options to contend with.
With the addition of a quality, creative midfielder (and potentially another striker when Van Persie leaves) this is a squad that, while unlikely to be challenging for the title, will be a threat to anyone, and with the right coaching and guidance, stands an excellent chance of finishing in the top four. Coupled with a mighty good go in one or two of the cup competitions, this is an outcome which most sensible Arsenal fans would be optimistically hoping for. The lack of trophies issue will keep rearing its head, but I can’t see how the major issues surrounding the club (warring owners, lack of direction from the board, out-dated wage structure, weak commercial agreements) would be solved by winning the Capital One (formerly Carling) cup.
Ultimately, this is not a side that has the talent or thoroughbred quality of the 2007/08 vintage, and is unlikely to truly be challenging for either the top echelons for ether the League title or Champions League, but as long as the team continues to be competitive and display the team-spirit, togetherness and fight that was evident in many games last season, then it’s a team and a project that I can get right behind.