After stealing second place from Tottenham on the last day of the Premier League season, runners-up Arsenal are left to wonder what could have been and prepare for next season. Manager Arsene Wenger, having missed out on an opportunity to win the league this year, must step up his transfer activity to claim the highly coveted, and highly contested, top spot in the table.
Arsenal fans and soccer pundits have said for years that Arsenal needed a world class striker, a defensive midfielder and an elite goalie in order to win another title.
Over the last season Arsenal bought only two players for its senior team; goalkeeper Petr Cech and midfielder Mohammed El-Neny. Cech was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle, a world-class goalkeeper the likes of which Arsenal hadn’t had since Jens Lehman and the Invincibles, namely a goalkeeper that would win them games by himself and propel them to the title. For the most part Cech did just that. He won the Golden Glove for the most shutouts in the league and solidified the defense.
By the January transfer window Arsenal’s midfield was wracked with injuries and Wenger was forced into purchasing Egyptian midfielder Mohammed El-Neny. El-Neny has been good in his time at the Emirates and has combined well in the midfield with both Aaron Ramsay and Francis Coquelin. However, neither of these signings won Arsenal the title and both failed to address more glaring issues.
It turns out Arsenal’s biggest problem wasn’t stopping goals, but scoring them. The team’s leading goalscorer in the Premier League was Olivier Giroud with 16 goals. While 16 league goals is not a bad tally, the problem wasn’t the output but the pace of those goals. Giroud scored 12 goals in through January, a reasonable number for a striker on top team. Then he went ice cold, going 15 league games without a goal, tied for the second longest drought in the league, after Newcastle’s Siem di Jong (Newcastle was relegated and the performance of any of their players shouldn’t be emulated). Giroud scored a header to secure a critical draw against Manchester City in early May and on the last day of the season exploded for his first Premier League hat trick. Those goals inflated his stats to a more respectable number but for a team striving to lift hardware at season’s end, the team’s leading striker must be far more consistent.
Meanwhile, winger Alexis Sanchez provided 13 goals throughout the campaign, but after him the production slowed to a crawl. Assist master Mesut Ozil scored only 6 goals for the team, but racked up 19 assists and can hardly be blamed for failing to win the title. That finger is pointed at striker/winger Theo Walcott. Walcott forced a move to striker after returning from a long knee injury and after some initial success completely failed at the position. Early in the season he succeeded in sending Giroud to the bench but over the course of the campaign he netted only 5 goals. This led to him being sent back to right wing, but even there his goal total didn’t pick back up and youngster Alex Iwobi was picked to start over him. This failure to produce culminated in his absence from the admittedly disappointing England squad for the Euro’s this summer.
The midfield of Arsenal showed definite strain over the course of the season. Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla spent much of the season injured and Ramsey, Coquelin and El-Neny proved adequate but not inspiring replacements. Ramsey was played out of position on the right wing for much of the early part of the season, to get him into games while Cazorla was still healthy, and it seems like Wenger may continue that trend into next season. Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain was virtually invisible with poor play and injury for much of the year, and rumors have suggested he may be on his way out via transfer. Reloading over the summer could see Carzola and Coquelin relegated to backup roles while El-Neny, Wilshere and newcomer Granit Xhaka split the duties in the center midfield.
Defense is the one area where Arsenal seems to be the best situated. French international Lauren Koscielny is the anchor of a solid backline, providing cover and poise for the defense. Gabriel Paulista and Per Mertesacker will continue to battle for the other centerback position, but Gabriel, the younger of the two, seems better suited for the role. Center back could be a position that Wenger seeks to reinforce over the summer, or he could allow young defender Calum Chambers to compete for a spot.
On the wings two Spaniards seem to be taking all the time. Young right back Hector Bellerin has banished veteran Matthieu Debuchy to the bench and is even drawing interest from clubs like Barcelona while veteran left back Nacho Monreal has tightened his grip on the starting spot for the second straight season. His dominance on the position has even led to rumors that England International left back Kieran Gibbs may seek more playing time elsewhere next season.
The individual performances at Arsenal clearly varied but what they achieved as a team did not meet the pre-season expectations. Arsenal finished second, and only stole second place from hated rival Tottenham on the last day of the season. Even stealing second was due to the shocking collapse of the Spurs at relegated Newcastle. The team cannot be happy with Leicester City winning the league. Every other titan in the premier league is feeling the same disappointment, but Arsenal was the only team to beat the Foxes twice. With the fall of Chelsea, scuffling at Everton and Liverpool, and the disappointing efforts from both Manchester clubs, this was Arsenal’s year and it was squandered away.
Arsene Wenger is famous for a few things in the transfer market. He has scouted and tried to sign some of the best names in the business (Messi and Suarez most famously) and is seen as a bargain hunter, someone who takes a long time to get transfers done. This summer he pleasantly shocked his fans by signing Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka only 2 weeks into the offseason. The midfielder came at a high price, but his performance at the Euro’s with Switzerland is silencing any doubters.
Xhaka is the type of midfielder that Arsenal have needed. He can defend well and also passes and moves well with the ball. Of his new teammates; Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere all pass and dribble well, El-Neny is a jack of all trades, and Coquelin is an admirable defender, but none of them do everything as well as Granit does. Xhaka is a bone crunching tackler who isn’t afraid to get nasty with opposing players. He also completes over 80% of his passes and is seen as a potential replacement for both Cazorla and Coquelin, freeing Ramsay and Wilshere to play in their preferred central role while rampaging forward to score. If it works it will have been worth the suspected 34 million pounds that Arsenal spent on him. The beauty of this signing is that one player now fills the roles that two have taken up, shoring up Arsenal’s defensive spine without bringing offensive limitations, allowing the team to retain their free-passing offense without being bullied around the pitch.
Rumors are flying that Wenger and the Gunners aren’t done yet. Much of the transfer window silly season is in full swing around the Emirates, but persistent reports of Arsene Wenger pursuing strikers are always the rage among Arsenal fans and soccer reporters. Arsenal looked ready to open up the vault for Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, but the recent league champions seem poised to keep their striker after they matched Arsenal’s offer. The try for Vardy is exactly what Wenger has been preaching, capitalizing on good value. At 20 million pounds, the 29 year old would have been a steal.
With Vardy off the board, Arsenal is now left to find a different striker if they are determined to upgrade over Olivier Giroud. The two most obvious choices are Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and Juventus’ Alvaro Morata. Lukaku scored in bunches over the past few years for Everton and as a homegrown player would command a massive transfer fee. He is not the prototypical Arsenal striker but then neither was Olivier Giroud (some say he still isn’t). Lukaku remains unlikely to join Arsenal but larger surprises have certainly happened and as we all know, money is the great equalizer in the sport. Morata makes more sense as an Arsenal player. He is quick and incisive with the ball at his feet and would wreak havoc playing with Ozil and Sanchez. Morata has everything that the Gunners are looking for; he is young, only 23, works tirelessly on and off the ball, and has a penchant for scoring in big matches (something Giroud is often criticized for not doing). The only thing keeping him from moving to north London is that Real Madrid will be looking for an absurd amount of money for the young Spaniard’s signature. Morata is all potential, but Wenger may not be able to get the value he is looking for at a price he is willing to swallow.
Defensive help may also be coming to the Emirates. Arsenal is rumored to be pursuing a new left back with strong rumors suggesting it would be Swiss international Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez is another respected young international with a low release clause. He represents the value that Wenger is pursuing and his own club has been quoted as saying that his future is not in their hands. Rodriguez would be the eventual (maybe even day 1) replacement for Spanish left back Nacho Monreal which would leave Kieran Gibbs relegated to the third string, indicating that he would be sold in the transfer window. The young English player would command a decent transfer fee, as he is homegrown and on the verge of breaking into regular time with the English national team. Should the Rodriguez deal fall apart then Celtic FC youth product Kieran Tierney is another rumored target for left back. In the center, Arsenal are looking for a replacement for an again Per Mertesacker. Last January they purchased Gabriel Paulista, who has been serviceable but not the world-beater that Arsenal fans are looking for.
All of this transfer activity must be seen in context. Premier league teams have more money than ever, not just the established behemoths. With a massive new TV deal filling the coffers of every Premier League teams like Leicester, Tottenham, and West Ham, many of the usual mid-tier squads will be nipping at the heels of the giants ahead of them.
This means that Arsenal cannot afford to slow down now. Manchester City and Manchester United have both brought in world class mangers, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho respectively, to bring them back to their title winning ways. Guardiola has already started spending and has Manchester City’s unlimited oil money behind him. Mourinho is especially concerning for Arsenal as he always seems to have their number. Plus, he has been shown to have great success early in his career with clubs. Chelsea will surely seek to reload after a failure of a season and certainly has the money to retool quickly. The only positive in this is that none of these three clubs are looking for strikers, but they are all looking to reclaim the top spot and prevent a repeat Cinderella performance from Leicester City. Arch-rivals Tottenham also make life difficult for Arsenal, their team is young, talented, and they will certainly be seeking to add to it and avenge a bitter fall to third place.
So as the Euro’s wind down and the transfer window really starts heating up, Arsenal fans will be eagerly awaiting to see who the next player is to join the Gunners as the 2016/17 season creeps up on the horizon.