Arsene Wenger has always been somewhat of a transfer-sceptic. In the January window just gone, we were once again privy to the Arsenal manager’s annual condemnation of the mid-season transfer market, citing how it creates unnecessary tension amid the most taxing period of the Premier League season and often gives certain clubs an unfair advantage, using Chelsea’s sale of Juan Mata to Manchester United as a case in point.
Admittedly, Wenger has always been a manager that favours showing faith in his players over taking a gamble on the transfer market, and in the modern climate, where the Premier League spent over £650million on summer transfers alone and Real Madrid saw fit to splash out £86million on a single player in Gareth Bale, there’s certainly something loyally refreshing about that point of view.
But the current Premier League campaign is arguably the closest we’ve ever seen throughout the division, and it’s Arsenal’s first significant involvement in the English title race for the best part of a decade. So with just a single loan signing – Spartak Moscow’s Kim Kallstrom – to show for an entire month of mid-season transfer escapades, one can only ponder whether the Gunners gaffer’s lack of transfer ambition has ultimately cost the North Londoners their shot at the Premier League crown.
I’m sure I’m not the only one left rather bemused by Arsenal’s temporary acquisition of the Swedish international. Not only will Kallstrom be unavailable through a back injury until March at the earliest, but he’s not even been an automatic pick for Spartak Moscow of late. This is a player who the European elite looked at and deemed unworthy some time ago, so at the veteran age of 31, it’s surprising Wenger is now giving him a chance in the most coveted top flight in world football.
Even the Emirates boss has admitted Kallstrom is by no means an ideal signing. ” I would not have signed him if we had two or three more days to do something, but it was Friday night at five o’clock, so it was a case of you sign nobody or you do it under these conditions,” Wenger told reporters on February the 2nd.
But I have my qualms with that declaration too; admittedly, the January window never throws up ideal scenarios or the fruitful opportunities of its summer counter-part, but the Frenchman had a whole month to consider and weigh up his transfer options. Failing that critique, prior to the window opening on the turn of the year, Wenger had an entire half-season to plan, plot, scout and examine potential targets.
Most bizarrely, Kallstrom will strengthen the only department of the Arsenal first team that didn’t require immediate attention last month.
For example, the inadequacies of the North London outfit’s strikeforce is well-known. Olivier Giroud has been providing a vital service in the final third to find ten goals this season, leaving him as the club’s top scorer, and his six assists demonstrate how integral the 6 foot 4 striker has become to Arsenal’s game plan going forward.
But he’s been tremendously overworked as the only dependable front-man on the Emirates roster, starting in 24 of a possible 26 Premier League fixtures and only subbed off on seven occasions. Most tellingly in regards to his fitness however, Giroud has been benched just once before the 70 minute mark this season. Understudies Nicklas Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo are just not up to standard, and the option of playing Lukas Podolski up front is like using a square peg in a round hole.
Additionally, the loss of Theo Walcott through a six-month ACL injury lay-off could have a huge impact on Arsenal’s title plans this season. The 24 year-old had racked up five goals and four assists in nine Premier League starts.
Not only is he by far the Gunners’ most impactful substitute, but his roaring pace and penetration made the England international the perfect counterweight to Arsenal’s one-touch football, stretching the area of play and exposing gaps behind opposition defences. Barring the relatively unblooded Serge Gnabry, there is no like-minded attacking outlet in the Emirates squad.
And it’s not as if options to add to Arsenal’s striking depth of find a replacement to Theo Walcott weren’t out there this January, despite the Emirates manager often suggesting otherwise. Real Sociedad’s Carlos Vela particularly comes to mind; Arsenal still have a £4million buy-back clause on the ex-Gunner, who has bagged 35 goals and 24 assists in 91 La Liga appearances since switching to Anoeta in summer 2011.
Then there’s team-mate Antoine Griezmann, a speedy, tricky winger who has netted 14 times from the left-hand side this term. According to the tabloids, Wenger launched a £12.5million bid for the La Real star, but did not see fit to up the transfer ante and meet his £25million release clause.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of money for a 22 year-old with one campaigns’ worth of Champions League experience. But will this player be any cheaper in the summer? Unquestionably not after another stellar season, and If Wenger wanted him, he should have put some proper money on the table.
Failing that, deals could have been made for the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Pato, Mirko Vucinic, Sebastian Giovinco, Javier Hernandez, Jefferson Farfan and Javier Pastore to name a few, not to mention £38million-rated Julian Draxler.
Money certainly wasn’t an issue in terms of availability; Arsenal still had a wealth of their summer warchest left over, and have today announced a turnover of £130million. Rather, it’s undoubtedly Wenger’s spendophobia which has stood in the way; he’s reluctant to bring in the wrong player for the wrong price, and most importantly be accused of panic-buying.
But if there’s one transfer window where the Frenchman could be forgiven for taking an ill-fated gamble, it was undoubtedly last month. As previously stated, this is Arsenal’s best opportunity to claim the Premier League title for nearly ten years, and despite Wenger’s many critics, none could have accused him of anything but optimism if he had sought to add to his Gunners’ cast in January.
That’s not how Wenger sees it; he sees the five year plan, the ten year plan, the twenty year plan, and always maintains loyalty towards his own players. But for all his long-term strategising, one has to wonder where and when a Premier League title-winning Gunners side will actually emerge, especially whilst the Arsenal manager continues to reject the notion of pragmatic signings and only condones transfers that will guarantee value for money.
The way I see it is simple; if you have to overspend on a target to guarantee his signing, and he becomes part of a Premier League winning squad, then he’s automatically worth every penny.
But once again, Arsenal’s inevitable flaw remains – they’re a side that shows great promise, potential and quality, but they’re never fully complete. Arsene Wenger had the opportunity to bring the squad closer to its ultimate this January, but declined. At the end of the season, Gunners fans will be right to question whether their manager could have done more last month.