After a decade of dormancy in the Premier League title race, Arsene Wenger is finally building a team that can genuinely contend for the English crown.
The £35million capture of Alexis Sanchez cannot be overstated as a major coup; not only does the former Barcelona star fit perfectly into Arsenal’s tica-taca-inspired system, but he also offers the Gunners pace, penetration and energy going forward – something they desperately lacked last season in the absence of Theo Walcott.
Likewise, Wenger is rumoured to be on the prowl for a holding midfielder. Sami Khedira, Lars Bender and Morgan Schneiderlin have all been strongly linked, and at this point it would be a surprise if none of the three showed up at the Emirates this summer.
The north Londoners are also reported to be in deep negotiations with AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli, addressing the long-term requirement for world-class quality and firepower up top, something Arsenal have been without since Robin van Persie left for Manchester United in 2012.
Arsenal certainly need a maverick too, someone who, although perhaps difficult for Wenger to control, can pull off the sublime to win a match with the blink of an eye. That argument first surfaced when the Gunners made an ill-fated £40million-plus-a-quid bid for then-Liverpool’s Luis Suarez last summer.
The theory being that although there’s a consistently healthy atmosphere around Arsenal, of which can only be justifiably attributed to the stability Wenger’s 18-year presence provides, their collective mindset can perhaps be too kind and forgiving. No doubt, the north Londoners have lacked the ruthlessness of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City over the last handful of seasons.
Suarez, perhaps the most enigmatic, controversial yet driven players the Premier League has ever witnessed, was seen by some as almost a spiritual figurehead that could make Arsenal more determined and nastier – a dynamo of personality that would trickle into those around him, challenging and demanding more from his team-mates. The Uruguayan’s mixture of quality, grit and fortitude certainly had that level of effect on Liverpool’s 2013/14 campaign.
But now Suarez is gone, and one could argue that Balotelli is an effective surrogate. Like the Barcelona forward, he too is unpredictable and occasionally burdensome to those around him, yet through his ability to create something previously unimaginable – a 40 yard piledriver, or magical moment of individual skill – remains a similarly inspirational figure.
There are notable differences however between Balotelli and Suarez. Although close on the spectrum of modern footballing enigmas, whilst the latter’s irrepressible nature is spawned from an entrenched desire to win – the effects of earning your football education in the Uruguayan slums – the former’s is located more in his lack of team spirit.
Who needs team spirit when you’re Balotelli? When the Italy international is in the mood, he verges upon a one-man team. Following the loss of Aaron Ramsey to injury in December, especially against their divisional rivals, it certainly felt like Arsenal lacked a talismanic match-winner.
But let us not forget how disruptive an influence the 23 year-old can be. Dubbed unmanagable by Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, photographed nearly coming to blows with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, Balotelli’s dark side – the counterweight of his greatest gift as a footballer; an undying confidence in himself – has a tendency to engulf those around him.
No one can doubt the boy has talent. Although not a proficient goalscorer – Balotelli is surprisingly yet to reach the 20-goal mark in any of his six seasons as a senior – the Azzurri forward scores important goals, often against high-quality opposition, which has been Olivier Giroud’s biggest failing since moving to the Emirates in 2012.
But in comparison to Suarez, Balotelli’s mindset is a polar opposite. Rather than a simple concept of a Jekyll and Hide, he is more a boy’s brain trapped in the body of one of the world’s most naturally talented footballers – and that is not merely a reference to his off-pitch antics that have enhanced the sense of mystery and intrigue around him.
When the chips are down, the former Anfield star becomes more agitated, energetic and desperate to score. The Italy international on the other hand, as we witnessed many times at Manchester City, tends to lose interest, as if to somehow exclude himself from poor results and performances. Perhaps that is why Balotelli has now struggled to reach the enormous heights expected of him at two major clubs. Arsenal could well be his third.
Although I believe Arsenal would benefit greatly from a maverick figure of the Balotelli mould – a player who can confuse and frustrate his team-mates as much as the opposition, but through sheer quality demands a higher level of performance from those around him – the Italian himself is by no means an ideal candidate for that role.
There is a thin line between beauty and destruction, a delicate equilibrium that needs to be found. And whilst, despite his apparent lust for human flesh, I believe Suarez lingers just above that line, Balotelli, thus far in his career, has not.
Although the Gunners need an enigma, Balotelli might be a step too far.