Last summer Arsene Wenger embarked on a hasty last minute shopping trip to bolster his squad as Arsenal endured a nightmare start to the new season. This year, he has evidently been determined not to let the same thing happen again. The signings of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud stated the Frenchman’s intent, though in the aftermath of Robin van Persie’s decision not to sign a new contract, those captures might just become even more important.
That is underlined by the disappointment Wenger must feel at the rest of his forward line, all of whom give him cause for concern. Marouane Chamakh has been an abject failure, as Arsenal’s game is plainly not suited to his style; Nicklas Bendtner is set to leave, as is Andrei Arshavin; Park Chu-Young has had little playing time and seems poised for the exit door, whilst Gervinho showed promise and hard work, but his end product was poor last season. However, the Ivorian, unlike the rest of Arsenal’s underperforming forwards, appears capable of making something happen with his pace, direct running and skill. The rest are likely to be sold, and that places huge pressure on Arsenal’s new forwards, particularly given the Van Persie situation.
What stands out about Podolski and Giroud is that unlike some of those they will replace, both have a keen eye for goal. The signing of two such players indicates that Wenger knows his team were too reliant on Van Persie last season. And now Arsenal may not be able to count on him at all next season.
In theory there could be an improvement. Podolski is of a different level to Gervinho and arguably Theo Walcott too, and has considerable experience. Giroud has the technique and a blistering left foot; in fact he is quite similar to Van Persie, though lacking the Dutchman’s skill. What is also notable about both Podolski and Giroud are two characteristics they have in common – hard work and teamwork. Along with Walcott, Wenger is shaping a forward line in which the goals are shared, movement is key and so is the team.
But this is on paper. Giroud may be a goalscorer who in time could fill in the shoes of Van Persie, but he is also a player who during his career has tended to take a year or so to adjust to life at a higher level. Asking him to step straight into the Dutchman’s prolific boots may therefore be a bit too much. And although Walcott’s statistics are good, there remains the feeling about the Englishman that he could be more efficient still.
Thus the departure of Van Persie is mostly a problem of timing. This is not the moment Arsenal want him to go and his goals were clearly vital for the club last year. Without them, Wenger’s side probably would not be in the Champions League. Football however is a team sport, and the same arguments about Van Persie could be made for Laurent Koscielny, who essentially kept together a threadbare defence in the early weeks of the season and was the team’s outstanding defensive performer.
Similarly, the loss of all their full-backs mid-season led to Arsenal’s January blip, whilst only one match was won without Mikel Arteta. Many close observers would argue Tomas Rosicky was the club’s best player during their vital late season surge to third place, while where would Arsenal have been too, without Alex Song’s crucial assists against the likes of Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool? And the majority of Van Persie’s goals came from cutbacks from deep after runs from Walcott and Gervinho. The problem for Arsenal, typified by the lack of an adequate substitute in the 3-0 home win over AC Milan in February, is not so much that they are a team reliant on one player, but one reliant on eleven first team players, without the strength in depth necessary to replace them when injuries hit.
This is not to denigrate Van Persie’s huge contribution and his departure this summer would raise the obvious concern about who will score goals next year. For all the rest of the team’s quality, no other player showed the ability to find the back of the net regularly. That is why Wenger must keep the Dutchman, against his wishes if necessary, as it is essential that Arsenal find a replacement source of goals before letting him leave. Giroud and Podolski mean Wenger may already have the answer, just not yet, while if Walcott can continue to improve he should also provide his fair share of goals.
The Gunners boss also needs to ensure there is a constant supply to the frontline from midfield. Though Arsenal played their usual possession game last year, they were more predictable than usual. That is because the Gunners lacked someone who can play ‘eye of a needle’ balls in the absence of Jack Wilshere and following the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Wenger may consider that he needs another player who can do that, as often last season Arsenal were forced to play the ball wide and hope that a speculative cross created an opening. Though it was a refreshing alternative to seeing Arsenal pass the ball across midfield relentlessly, at least with Fabregas the opposition never knew where the ball was going to be played next.
Wenger has much to do to reshape his midfield and attack. For once, the defence seems reasonably secure. But then Arsenal’s defensive problems are mainly a case of midfielders and forwards not helping sufficiently, another area Wenger should address. What this shows is that there are too many ‘maybes’ over the entire team at present to allow Van Persie to leave this summer – Arsenal still need to lean on his goals during their prolonged transition.
That is why it would probably make more sense to risk losing the Dutchman on a free transfer next summer than for £20M plus in the current window. Arsenal notably improved when Thierry Henry left the club, but that was because Wenger had a plan in place and the transfer was with his blessing and control; Van Persie is trying to force the issue and change the Frenchman’s strategy. With their new signings Arsenal looked like they would be an improved team next year, but without Van Persie that is uncertain again. Wenger has long held firm to the belief that if a player does not want to play for the club, he would rather they go. But this may be the time for the Gunners boss to break one of his cherished principles.