During yesterday afternoon’s press conference, Arsene Wenger revealed that Arsenal were not in the hunt to sign Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira.
The World Cup winner was seen by many as an ideal acquisition to add some bite and tenacity to Arsenal’s midfield, but now that the Gunners aren’t in the running, the Emirates boss has suggested, rather than actively seeking alternatives, that role could instead be passed to Jack Wilshere.
Gunners fans should be incredibly concerned – this is not the first materialisation of Wenger’s blasé approach towards holding midfielders and it will undoubtedly not be the last. He’s never truly replaced Alex Song after his departure to Barcelona in 2012, and spanning back even further, considering the Cameroonian’s renowned positional ill-discipline, it could be argued Arsenal haven’t possessed a genuine top quality defensive midfielder since Gilberto Silva – he left in 2008.
Arsenal have already made great progress this summer. The importance of Alexis Sanchez cannot be overstated. He confirms, following the £42.2million arrival of Mesut Ozil last summer, that the Gunners are once again mixing it up with the European elite in the transfer market.
Furthermore, the former Barcelona star, through his tiki-taki technique, not only lends himself to Arsenal’s traditional style, but also offers them vital pace and penetration going forward – something they telling lacked towards the end of last season following Theo Walcott’s injury layoff in February.
Likewise, Mathieu Debuchy, although not a world-beater, is an effective replacement for Bacary Sagna, David Ospinosa is an impressive improvement to the goalkeeping department and Calum Chambers looks like a sound investment for the club’s future. Far from the penny-pinching, budget-buying Arsene Wenger we’ve seen in recent years, the current transfer window has already been Arsenal’s most lucrative throughout their history.
But all that good work will be undone without addressing the Gunners’ most intrinsic need – the desperate requirement for a holding midfielder. Without one, Arsenal’s title chances, despite singing of a potential new talisman in Alexis Sanchez, remain as slim as last season.
No one can doubt the talent in Arsenal’s midfield. The arrival of Alexis Sanchez gives them a wealth of options, strength and depth in the middle of the park. To think Santi Cazorla, a midfielder who reached double figures in goals and assists during his first season at the Emirates, will most likely be a bench option next season, is an enormous statement of the Gunners’ improvement in that department over the last few years.
Yet, it lacks the balance, structure and organisation required to be truly effective at top level. Aaron Ramsey averaged 3.3 tackles per match last season, Jack Wilshere offers endless energy and Mikel Arteta’s quality on the ball has kept Arsenal ticking over nicely since his arrival in 2011. None however, are holding midfielders in the conventional sense and all lack the natural physicality and defensive awareness required for that role.
I can understand Wenger’s distain towards Sami Khedira. Not only are his alleged wage demands unjustifiable for the north London club, but there also appears to be some misconceptions of the German international in England. Although undoubtedly a tenacious worker, he’s adopted the holding role for neither Germany nor Real Madrid over the last few years – that task has more commonly gone to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso respectively.
But, despite Wenger’s allegations otherwise, there are alternatives on the market, the most likely being Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender. He’s very much Khedira’s understudy in the Mannschaft fold and is commonly rated by the tabloids at around £20million. Then there’s Morgan Schneiderlin, who has made more tackles, 259, and more interceptions, 207, than any Premier League player since Southampton’s top flight ascension in summer 2012 – that’s if the Saints can be convinced into selling after losing so many players already this summer. As well as Portugal prodigy William Carvalho – a huge risk with a £37million price-tag, but nonetheless touted as a future star of world football.
Rather worryingly, Sporting Lisbon claim they are yet to receive an offer for Carvalho, the Lars Bender trail has gone completely cold and Arsenal appear to have been put off by Southampton’s £27million valuation of their France international.
But even less obvious suggestions, such as Stoke City’s renegade Steven N’Zonzi – a 6 foot 4 brutish midfielder, surprisingly eloquent on the ball – Lille youngster Idrissa Gueye, who dominated Ligue 1’s tackling charts last season, or even a return for Alex Song, are worth consideration.
Not least because, Arsenal will never effectively challenge for the Premier League title unless they can record important results against their divisional rivals. Last season, the north Londoners 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 the balance of Arsenal’s starting Xi must significantly change, the obvious difference in comparison to Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and even Everton, being the absence of a midfield anchor.
We know Arsenal have more money to spend, and thus, the only obstacle to the Gunners acquiring a holding midfielder is Arsene Wenger. His arrogance philosophically is hard to ignore – he insists on playing the Arsenal way, which at the moment does not include a potentially cumbersome defensive element in the middle of the park. But that itself is a dangerous underestimation of the quality in the Premier League; as if the Gunners’ performances, and never that of their opponents, are the leading factor in any given result.
The signing of Alexis Sanchez suggests Arsenal are getting serious. Rather than long-term planning based around five or ten year cycles, Wenger has shown a refreshing pragmatism in the market this summer that deviates strongly from his transfer policy over the last decade.
But how serious is Arsene Wenger? In my opinion, the signing of a holding midfielder, from a tactical perspective, is the ultimate barometer of how clinical he plans to be next season. Without one, despite their progress this summer, the Gunners will remain a side embroiled in its own idealism, and thus cannot be considered genuine title contenders.