For Second Consecutive Summer, Decisive Liverpool Fills Gooners With Worry
Well, here we go again. It was silly, in retrospect, to think that Arsenal supporters would become a less polarised group in a post-Wenger world. Any chance there might have been for fans to display a bit of patience while the club sort through their summer transfer business went out the window this week as Liverpool once again made a much-lauded early foray into the market, focusing on the player they want and getting the deal over the line. In a flash, the Merseyside club went from losing Emre Can to striking a brilliant move for central midfielder Fabinho from Monaco as a clear upgrade on the outgoing German. Once paired with Naby Keita, who the club secured a year ago on a deal for this season, Liverpool will have instantly turned the midfield from a potential problem area to one of the team’s strengths.
Meanwhile, back at London Colney, Arsenal have been busy themselves, but so far from a much less sexy shopping list. The Gunners are trying to fill multiple holes on the cheap, with a reported pre-sales budget of £50-70 million to complete their summer spending, and thus far have looked to prize experience at the back in their search. Sokratis Papastatopoulos and 34-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner stand to be the club’s first two signings of the summer window, and that has predictably split fan opinion.
Sokratis is the younger of the two players at 29, and the questions surrounding the logic behind his signing are based more on how he fits into the backline than any pressing age concerns. With Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Calum Chambers currently in the side, the Gunners have a stable of centre-backs who trend heavily towards being front-footed, aggressive type players that may lack some of the cerebral qualities that made the retiring Per Mertesacker so effective in his prime.
With Mustafi the presumptive holdover starter next season following Koscielny’s Achilles injury, a central defensive pairing of he and Sokratis could seem like a high risk/high reward proposition. Both are talented ball winners, decent in the air and like to attack the ball rather than wait to stop it passing by. In matches where both are in form and focused, the defence could look athletic, physical and suffocating, but in matches where either or both commit the shocking blunders that Dortmund and Arsenal fans have come to expect with these players, we could see some truly embarrassing goals conceded.
As for Lichtsteiner, most of the noisy commentariat looked no further than his age (34) before passing judgement on his potential arrival. While it is true that the player is nearing the end of his playing career, to write him off as finished would be both a severe injustice to his recent body of work in Turin for Juventus, and also ignore just exactly how badly the Gunners need to provide depth for Hector Bellerin. The young Spaniard was perhaps fortunate (though I doubt he would agree) to miss out on the World Cup following an up and down season that saw him compete in nearly 50 matches in all competitions. For a player who covers the ground he does, rest this summer and a proper deputy could be essential to keeping him at his best next season.
Will Lichtsteiner be the solution to all that ailed the Gunners? Not even close, but as an experienced, veteran presence to offer his guidance to the younger Bellerin, as well as an extremely capable defender in his own right, he makes a lot of sense for Arsenal, especially on a free transfer. If the budget figures are to be believed (and I do have my doubts about that – a story for another time), acquiring such a battle-tested player without paying a fee is tidy business. With Per Mertesacker and Santi Cazorla coming off the books, the Gunners can essentially wash out whatever wages he is paid with the money saved from those expiring contracts. Sounds like a good deal to me, especially with Huss Fahmy’s apparent commitment to shorter term contracts for older players.
Anything To Be Excited About?!
Every single transfer window for as far back as I can remember has given Arsenal supporters anxiety. It doesn’t matter whether they sign a £35 million player on the first day of the window or if they hold off and only spend later in the summer, fans are never satisfied. However, even I would admit that should the Gunners fail to do much beyond Lichtsteiner and Sokratis, it would be entirely insufficient. Every supporter even somewhat paying attention could tell you that the Gunners need a new goalkeeper, perhaps even another defender after the two aforementioned, and a defensive or ball-winning box-to-box midfielder to beef up the spine of the team.
On the goalkeeper front, a lot of options have been bandied about this year, ranging from the cheap as chips Timo Horn from the relegated Koln to the pipe dream that is Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak and his newly minted €180 million release clause. However, the real ‘mamma bear’ (just right option) of the current available crop of keepers is Bernd Leno of Bayer Leverkusen. Despite having had a poor season by his own standards, Leno is very much a highly-regarded prospect around Europe, and he is comfortably in the mix to be the eventual successor to Manuel Neuer between the sticks for die Mannschaft.
If you are one who believes the next Arsenal goalkeeper should be of a less Germanic flavour, there are reports that Unai Emery’s former stopper at Sevilla, Sergio Rico, could become a candidate to bolster the position, but at this point, he appears to be more of a media-made connection than a viable option.
Defensive midfielder has long been a priority for Arsenal (since 2005 in fact, when Patrick Vieira left) but no matter how they have tried to fill that massive hole in the heart of the team, they have struggled mightily to do so. They were close a couple times, including the brilliantly talented but ultimately tragic Abou Diaby and the solid but unspectacular Alex Song, and they finally even tried throwing money at the problem 2 summers ago by signing Granit Xhaka. Fabinho would have been a good one for the club, but he will be busy next season making Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surplus to requirements at his second club in two seasons. The names being thrown around have potential, but it will require a substantial portion of the available budget to land them.
From Nice, Jean-Michael Seri has been garnering much attention for his rough approximation of either Santi Cazorla or N’Golo Kante depending on who is speaking about him, and he could be available for under £40m after his club admitted he could leave for the right price. Lorenzo Pellegrini of Roma has also been talked about as a potential target, and given Unai Emery’s past relationship with Roma’s Director of Football, Monchi, the team could be getting solid information on the player. Beyond these two players, there have been some talk of some bigger money moves in some circles, like a budget-busting £80m+ for Lazio midfield dynamo Sergej Malinkovic-Savic, who would be an all-around midfield presence that could benefit the club on multiple fronts.
Fans are worried sick right now, there is no denying it. With Liverpool, largely thought to be approximately on the same financial plane as Arsenal, having their way in the transfer market, the gap appears to only be growing for some. However, the real key to this season will not be who the club manages to sign, but rather how Unai Emery can extract more from the extremely talented team already at his disposal.
With a bit of balance, some fresh ideas, and a new voice, perhaps the myriad of plateauing players at the club can find their best selves with Arsenal. Arsene Wenger was a special man who did a wonderful job, but for once, the club don’t have to look solely towards the transfer market to freshen up the team. Instead, they can look inward and find the top 4 team that already exists within the walls of London Colney. Unai, your challenge awaits.