Arsenal look to be right at the front of the queue, but does the move add up?
In a way, it’s astounding that no club showed any concrete interest in the 27-year-old at the end of last season and all through the summer considering he had just scored 16 league goals in 36 games, but a slump in the second half of the campaign which saw him add just one goal to his mid-season tally of 15 during the 2-1 victory at home over Aston Villa on the 5th February, which proved to be his last of the season, saw him not only live in Papiss Cisse’s shadow, but put off any potential suitors.
There were clearly suspicions that Ba was little more than a flash in the pan and that he would struggle to replicate his fantastic early season form at a bigger club, but 13 league goals in 20 appearances this term have shown him to be a player of real substance and along with his record at West Ham, he now has 36 in 66 league games in the top flight. Amir Zaki, he is not.
Before the 7-3 game between the two sides at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger responded to a reporters question with the following: “I like Demba Ba, yes. I don’t think [this] is the right place to speak about that, because he plays against us tomorrow. I wouldn’t like to put Newcastle or us or him in an uncomfortable position. If you ask me ‘do we sign Demba Ba?’ I say no.”
This was obviously also in response to Ba’s rather mischievous ‘come and get me plea’ a week previously after being quoted in The Sun: “It is true that Arsenal are among the clubs that are tempting. Journalists are doing their job, they know Arsenal need strikers and they know I have a clause in my contract so they start speculating.”
It’s clear that Arsenal are extremely inconsistent even by their own standards this season, and having just stuck five past Reading and seven past Newcastle, they laboured to a 1-1 draw against a struggling Southampton side last night, a point which they were somewhat fortunate to pick up at all given the sub-standard quality of their overall performance.
Wenger stated in the aftermath of the draw, telling BBC Sport: “Our game lacked purpose, penetration and speed, all qualities we have usually. Maybe we thought we had made enough progress and eased off but that doesn’t work at this level.” They went from having 28 shots in total against Newcastle at home to mustering just four on target against Nigel Adkins’ side – having scored 13 in their last three games, you’d be forgiven for thinking that confidence was a pertinent problem, but with such a mentally fragile squad, it will always be there, just bubbling underneath the surface.
The disparity between chances created does not, as Ba attested to, hint at a lack of striking options, rather a problem with a consistent flow of creativity further behind and once again the midfield triumvirate of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla only sporadically showed glimpses of their talent. Pushing Cazorla further forward is a necessary move for a start and given Aaron Ramsey struggles and Abou Diaby’s injury problems, a move for another playmaker could be what’s required above all else, with a more direct style compared to the probing presence of Tomas Rosicky the order of the hour.
When you look at the club’s striking talent, while they are obviously missing Robin van Persie from last season, and in all honest, what team in the world wouldn’t? In very basic terms, they let one forward go in the summer and brought in two with Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, so they have the numbers and the depth; the ingredients are all there, but the right mix has eluded Wenger so far.
The Germany international has been decent, if unspectacular and has a modest return of six goals in 18 league outings and nine in 24 across all competitions while Giroud has a very similar record of six in 18 league games and nine across 25 outings including cup competitions and European appearances. Neither have set the pulses racing, but replacing van Persie’s goals was always going to be a difficult and daunting task, particularly as they are both enjoying their first season in England and need time to acclimatise to the style and culture over here.
Nevertheless, one man has stepped up to the plate in recent weeks with a continued spell through the middle in his preferred position and that is Theo Walcott, who has four goals in four starts in a central striking position this month, including a hat-trick against Newcastle in a magnificent individual display full of running and clinical finishing.
The contractual wrangle between the player and club looks likely to hinge on assurances from Wenger that Walcott has a future in a central attacking role. Thierry Henry was roughly the same age when he was converted and utilised there full-time and the England international has made a compelling case in recent games. A move for Ba would surely shift Walcott back out wide, with Wenger unlikely to play two up front and veer away from his 4-3-3 system. The question then is very simply, is Walcott scoring enough through the middle to make a move for Ba anything other than a needles indulgence and expense?
While he has undoubtedly been impressive, Ba has been equally if not more impressive over a longer period; backing Walcott to deliver what Ba almost certainly would is a gamble which is an even more delicate siuation than usual considering the ongoing contractual negotiations.
Is the Senegalese forward good enough to play up top for a club with Champions League ambitions? Does he fit their style of play? Are his rumoured £75,000-per-week and questionable commitment levels with past employers not troubling issues worth chewing the fat over? These are all salient points to make, but given that he’s available for just £7m, this surely means that even if every single one of aforementioned questions doesn’t have a positive answer that it’s still probably worth pursuing just for the sheer value that you’re getting for your buck.
Nevertheless, while Ba would surely provide a more consistent stream of goals at the club than any of the options available to Wenger at the moment, the knock-on effect it could have on Walcott’s future is worth considering. The Magpies’ frontman would likely be a success, but if it means losing a 23-year-old, versatile and hungry England international at the same time, then the Frenchman may be better off looking to reinforce his squad elsewhere during January.