£37million signing Alexis Sanchez possesses the ability to become a talisman for the Gunners and has made an enormous statement of their revived pulling power in the transfer market. Right-back Mathieu Debuchy and goalkeeper David Ospina are strong additions too, whilst former Southampton youngster Calum Chambers is an impressive long-term investment.
But their potential to awaken the north Londoners from their dormant state in the English title race will always be capped without a player who can bring structure, physicality and defensive awareness to Arsenal’s midfield.
Last season, Arsene Wenger’s side claimed just six points against top five opposition and lost all of their four away fixtures with an aggregate score of 20-4. Three of the contests, against Liverpool, City and Chelsea, were over within the first half hour. That is evidence enough that, even if Arsenal can carve up the Premier League’s rank-and-file sides with their definitive brand of one-touch football, their balance against high-quality opposition must change.
Simply put, the Gunners are far too vulnerable on the counter-attack and this weakness has become dangerously obvious over the past few seasons. Divisional rivals know how to get a result against them; it does not take particular planning or tactical ingenuity. Signing a holding midfielder might not be the ultimate solution – Arsenal’s progressive philosophy will always leave them inevitably more open than the average Premier League side – but it would certainly be a step in the right direction, and evidence Wenger is taking his club’s title ambitions seriously.
Wenger has been rather ambiguous when quizzed on the matter of a defensive midfielder this summer, distancing himself from rumours and even alleging the role may go to Jack Wilshere. But it could be an effort to save face, with all his likely transfer targets seemingly only moving further away from an Emirates switch.
Sami Khedira’s wage demands are unjustifiable for the north London club, Morgan Schneiderlin was allegedly on the verge of rejecting Arsenal for Tottenham before Southampton declared that the Frenchman would not be sold this summer, 22 year-old William Carvalho could set the club back in excess of £30million and Lars Bender, well, Lars Bender hasn’t been mentioned in the same breath as Arsenal since mid-July.
It’s time to think further afield, and in that regard I suggest Arsenal turn their attentions to midfield monolith Steven N’Zonzi, who rather conveniently has handed in a transfer request for the second summer in a row at Stoke City. Clearly his ambitions are set a little higher than the Potteries.
Don’t let mid-table snobbery cloud your judgement. Admittedly, the 25 year-old is no world-beater and a lack of experience in European football, compared to Arsenal’s other aforementioned targets, is a major disadvantage.
But N’Zonzi’s progression since first joining the Premier League in 2009 has been continuous and promising. He won the Player of the Year award during his first season at Blackburn Rovers, remaining ever-present in the side for the next two campaigns as relegation continually threatened, before being named the Young Player of the Year during his inaugural term with the Potters, having swapped Ewood Park for the Britannia Stadium in summer 2012.
The 6 foot 4 midfielder is aggressive, brutish and often disobedient; in April 2011, he received a four-match ban for a two-footed lunge on Laurent Koscielney, and has overall amassed 31 yellow cards in 157 appearances throughout his Premier League career.
But the Frenchman is not simply a shin-crusher designed to intimidate the opposition – although I do feel that Arsenal’s collective mentality would benefit from an injection of such ruthlessness. Rather, N’Zonzi was at the heart of Stoke’s transition towards a more eye-catching style of football last season that earned Mark Hughes critical redemption from his sorry stay at QPR.
He averaged 57 passes per match last year – more than any player on the Potters roster – and boasted a pass completion rate of 87%. More than a water carrier however, 63% of N’Zonzi’s passes were forward, averaging just under one key pass per match. Those statistics are slightly lesser than Mikel Arteta’s – understandably considering the Spaniard’s undisputed technical quality – but exceed Jack Wilshere’s on all fronts with the exception of the latter. It’s also a better passing rate than Everton’s Gareth Barry and Newcastle’s Cheik Tiote, who have both been linked with Emirates moves before.
Moreover, N’zonzi’s height and strength bring something completely different to Arsenal’s engine room. With the exception of Aaron Ramsey, none of Arsenal’s midfielders measure above six foot and none come anywhere close to the Stoke star’s two aerial duels won per-match last term. Wilshere, comparatively once again due to the high possibility that he could be utilised as the Gunners’ deepest-lying midfielder next season, won just four aerial duels throughout the entirety of the 2013/14 campaign.
I’m not attempting to suggest N’Zonzi is the ideal acquisition to maintain the theme of Arsenal’s technical midfield. Just like the many, many defensive midfielders mooted as potential Gunners targets over the last few years, he can easily be accused of cumbersomeness.
But the stats, in addition to the Frenchman’s role in Stoke City’s recent transition, show that the 25 year-old is capable of lending himself to that style of play, keeping tidy in possession and plugging up gaps in front of the back four. And clearly an ambitious character, N’Zonzi strikes as a player who could undergo enormous, rapid improvement if he were surrounded by greater quality.
N’Zonzi’s name may not be eye-catching in comparison to some of the other defensive midfielders linked with Arsenal this summer. But do not let that fool you – he’s productive in possession, resilient in defence, physically assertive, has Premier League experience and in my opinion, the potential for further growth is as large as his towering 6 foot 4 frame.
Likely available for a figure around the £10million mark, the Stoke City midfielder could prove to be a real coup for the North Londoners.