Arsenal fans will no doubt be satisfied, if not rather pleased, with their team’s good showing in the Champions League last night. Of course, overcoming a 3-1 defecit againt Bayern Munich, one of Europe’s most in form teams, having won their last eleven fixtures on the bounce, would always be a monumental challenge, but the performance suggested that perhaps there is some serious quality in the Gunners’ first team after all.
The performance may have gone some way to preserve Arsene Wenger’s job, as although progressing past the round of 16 was never on the cards after the first leg, another woeful performance against Bayern would have surely created a very tense and volatile atmosphere around the Emirates.
Yet there are still many questions to be answered over the French boss’s future at the club. The fans are divided over how the club is being run; the ticket prices are too high, the wage structure has proved to not be cost-effective and for the first time in 15 years the Gunners look set to miss out on Champions League qualification. In an effort to appease fans, Wenger has announced that there will be a u-turn on his tight-fisted transfer policy in the summer, and now that all the debts for the new stadium have been paid off, an £80million kitty for new recruits will be made available in the next transfer window.
A reported transfer target is Swansea City’s in-form captain Ashley Williams, who’s lead the welsh club to their first League Cup final, and has also played a vital role in pushing the team into the race for Europa League qualification positions in the Premier League. The Wales international is seen as a potential solution to Arsenal’s defensive woes, with the majority of their backline being rather out of form for most of the season, particularly skipper Thomas Vermaelen, who’s performances have been rather uninspiring to say the least, and Bacary Sagna, who has failed to bounce back from injury and is now rumoured to be politely shown the exit door at the Emirates come the summer.
But would the Swansea centre-back actually make a difference for the Gunners? Is he really the calibre of player Arsene Wenger should be looking at to improve his squad? Or does he fall into the same category as many other of the club’s recent signings of being good but not quite good enough?
I am a fan of Ashley Williams. In many ways, he is the embodiment of the modern day centre-back. What he perhaps lacks in height, being just 6 foot, Williams makes up for in sheer athleticism – he’s an absolute powerhouse, with his bulging biceps always on show, and furthermore is incredibly quick with great recovery speed, making him an ideal covering defender.
Going forward, the Swans skipper is also an asset, and his ability on the ball provides a subtle yet integral element to Michael Laudrup’s game plan of building attacks from the back and keeping the ball at all costs, including pushing the ball into their defensive third and restarting moves by retaining possession.
His qualities would fit the Arsenal mould well, considering Wenger shares many ideals of the Swansea philosophy, namely keeping possession and having ability on the ball throughout the Starting XI. Similarly, his pace would allow the Gunners to play a much higher line in defence, which is currently an unavailable option whilst Per Mertesacker is one of Wenger’s first choice centre-backs.
Yet, one can already see the warning signs of history repeating itself. Arsene Wenger has been given £80million to spend on contracts and wages, but his first port of call is a 28-year-old, Premier League middle-order defender whose greatest achievement in the English game has been lifting the League Cup winners trophy, and is valued at just £8million. I have no doubt that Ashley Williams is a talented defender, but does he really have what it takes to push the Gunners back into the direction of the title race?
The issue I have with the typical Wenger transfer is the expectancy for the signing to step up his game upon moving to the Emirates. The obvious examples over the past few years are Mikel Arteta, Olivier Giroud, Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos, Gervinho and Laurent Koscielny. Although some have risen to the challenge, whereas others have fallen by the wayside and are now considered surplus to requirements at the Emirates, none have upped their performances to the level required for the Gunners to mount a serious title challenge.
Olivier Giroud for example, has proved to be a decent acquisition, contributing 12 goals and six assists in all competitions to the Arsenal cause, but it is already abundantly clear that the £13million signing is incomparable in terms of quality in front of goal with Robin Van Persie. Of course, the Dutch hitman is rather irreplaceable being one of the most clinical strikers in the world; but every Arsenal star over the past five or so years has been replaced with a milder, less talented and cheaper version.
I fear the same fate for Ashley Williams. He does have two years worth of Premier League experience on his side, during which time he’s been a consistent and reliable performer, but the difference in terms of intensity and pressure between a club pleased to be in the top half of the table, and another whose fans are discontent with finishing in 5th place is enormous.
Furthermore, he’s hardly the marquee signing that Arsenal fans have long been screaming out for. He could easily provide performance levels similar to Laurent Koscielny or Thomas Vermaelen, but what is to be gained from signing another defender who’s on equal stead with those already on the Gunners’ roster? He would not bring improvement, and he isn’t better than the personnel already at Wenger’s disposal.
Of course, the prospect of attracting top level talent becomes harder and harder whilst in a period of decline, and perhaps it is a touch naive of me to claim that Arsene Wenger still isn’t being ambitious enough regarding transfers. But is acquiring Williams a move more likely to edge the Gunners back towards former glories, or simply solidify their current position of continually battling it out for fourth spot? I believe it will prove to be the latter.
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