A genuine upgrade at Arsenal?

Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski

Just like with Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira before them, how are a club like Arsenal ever going to be in a position to bring in like-for-like replacements for their best outgoing players? It was no different this summer following Robin van Persie’s departure, although the club did move positively to have his replacement(s) in the team before he left. Mikel Arteta echoed this view: “It doesn’t matter who you bring in for Robin, you can’t ask anyone to be as good as him.” But with two new attackers added to the line up, have Arsenal really made strides forward in that department?

I’m not entirely convinced of the argument that Lukas Podolski will fill in at centre-forward if the team are without Olivier Giroud for whatever reason. For most, that would seem the most logical choice, considering Podolski played as a central striker at Koln and that Marouane Chamakh has set up camp on the borderline of useless. But evidently, Lukas Podolski excels at his game from the flanks, where Joachim Low has managed to fit two strikers into his attacking trident system for Germany. Why waste the talents and work ethic of Podolski on the left only to limit his use through the middle?

It’s an argument that has plenty of weight when you look at Podolski as the best wide player in the Arsenal team. Yes, Alex Oxalde-Chamberlain has a fearless approach and a great unpredictability about his game, but why choose him over an experienced German international? Moreover, Oxlade-Chamberlain is perfectly suited to the other flank ahead of both Theo Walcott and Gervinho.

If Podolski is forced to play through the middle as the lone striker, we’d obviously see his game suffer. He likes to drop deep and pick up the ball from the midfield, so where would the most advanced point of Arsenal’s attack be if the German continued to operate in this manner? It’s worth noting that Podolski played with a strike partner in Koln for much of last season.

With Podolski on the flank, Arsenal are assured of a consistent wave of goals—again, his scoring record for Germany is evidence of this. I believe Podolski was brought into the Arsenal team due to his performances and ability from the left side of the attack, not for his contributions for Koln as a central striker. The argument, therefore, that Arsenal now have two genuine centre-forwards as opposed to one from last season isn’t entirely valid.

So what happens with Theo Walcott? I still believe that the England winger should be moved into his natural position through the middle. But is this what Arsene Wenger has in mind? Walcott doesn’t have the strength or the build to hold up the play in the way Giroud or van Persie can, or even Chamakh to an extent. Instead, he needs to be sent through on goal with the ball played in front of him. Walcott’s technical ability is clearly not on par with players like Arteta, Cazorla and Podolski, so how will he cope in a system and against opposition that doesn’t always allow him to use his pace?

It would be a good idea to have Walcott as the alternative option to Giroud as the striker in the team, and it certainly gives Arsenal a plan B. But it really remains to be seen what Wenger’s plans are for Walcott this season. What should be a certainty is that his game and lack of consistency doesn’t warrant a starting place ahead of either Podolski or Oxlade-Chamberlain on a consistent basis.

Is it worth considering Gervinho as another option and an addition to the central striking role? He has been used in that position in training as well as in preseason, but there should be reservations as to what he can bring to the team if deployed in that manner.

His play leading up to the final third has always been good. He does have a good level of technical ability and is more than equipped with the tools needed to be a good wide player. But how does that translate to the central role? Maybe another Thierry Henry? No, no, that’s ridiculous. His decisions in and around the box leave a lot to be desired, and he hardly has the scoring record in England to suggest he’d be a good fit for the central role. His 15 goals at Lille in his final season in Ligue 1 is a good tally, but we haven’t seen that level of consistency in an Arsenal shirt yet.

At this stage, it does appear that Olivier Giroud is the player chosen to replace van Persie on the team sheet, with Wenger hoping for a good partnership between him and Podolski from the left. It’s a good avenue to explore in terms of replacing van Persie’s production, but is it enough?

Arsenal’s obvious pursuit of Kevin Mirallas does hint that the manager wants another body in the striking department—a genuine forward and not patched up version. It also seems to prove that Podolski was brought in to occupy the left flank, and not to rotate with Giroud centrally. Yes he can do it, but would Arsenal fans be happy with Cazorla in one of the wide positions knowing how influential he is centrally?

For that, it’s hard to say whether Arsenal have really upgraded their striking department, rather than just changed the parts. Wenger has bought well and has targeted the right type of player. But the problem is the issue of depth, where it really does seem like a reworking of Arsenal’s problems of last season. Until we know what Wenger plans to do with Walcott and even Gervinho—someone who should remain in one of the wide positions—then it does appear that the team have moved sideways with regards to the striking roles, instead of forward.