Arsenal supporters may be surprised to learn that a fourth-place finish in the Premier League may not prompt major moves to bolster the squad, but that appears to be the underlining sentiment from their manager when he assessed the club’s standing in the 2013-2014 season, and the prospects for next season.
When asked about a “massive injection of transfer funds” to strengthen the Gunners’ prospects next season, manager Arsene Wenger was typically coy.
"It depends what you call ‘massive.’ Seven points [behind leaders Manchester City] is nothing. It's two games,” Wenger said in a Thursday press conference.
To be technical, seven points is more than two games. And there are two other teams between Arsenal and City on the table. So such a situation should mean that Arsenal will be on the hunt for additional talent this summer, right?
“Look, we have to continue to develop as a team,” Wenger said. “We have bridged a big gap. We want to be better next season. How can we do that? We have hard work in the summer to achieve that?”
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More offseason preparation would certainly be helpful, but so would a star striker so that Olivier Giroud isn’t the lone option. The 27-year-old scored a perfectly acceptable 16 goals in Premier League competition, but reserves Nicklas Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo combined to score two goals in all competitions.
The prospect of Giroud returning as Wenger’s only reliable striker next season would be a major risk. While he has proven to be a respectable goal scorer, Arsenal have a major challenge awaiting them next season and may not be in the position to take even a minor risk. The Gunners are competing with the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and a Manchester United side that will be out to prove that their troubles this season were an anomaly. The aforementioned clubs already have plenty of world-class talent, and they are not expected to be complacent in the summer transfer period. Meanwhile, Everton and Tottenham have every intention of making a legitimate run at a Champions League spot.
Up front is just one area in need of improvement. To little shock, Arsenal’s midfield suffered through another injury-plagued season. Santi Cazorla led the team in games played (39), and even the Spaniard wasn’t injury free this campaign.
At this point, and given their history of injury setbacks, it would be a stretch to presume that Arsenal have put their injury problems behind them. Wenger will also have to be cautious of overworking Tomas Rosicky, who turns 34 in October and often doesn’t play the full 90 minutes.
Arsenal are not short of midfield talent, particularly in the middle after the September addition of Mesut Ozil. But 22-year-old Jack Wilshere has already spent considerable time on the physio’s table, and Abou Diaby hasn’t played a match since March 2013. Aaron Ramsey had a breakout season, but wasn’t fit for months.
The wings are also curious. Lukas Podolski started just 13 Premier League matches, and Theo Walcott started only 10. Walcott will remain sidelined with a cruciate ligament injury until about September. The versatile Cazorla has done an admirable job filling in, and starlet Serge Gnabry might be ready for a larger role next season. Young talent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has had an injury-affected campaign, but will rightfully earn opportunities to bounce back next season.
Defensive midfield could be in need of an upgrade after some rather erratic performances, but it still had its bright spots. Wenger could probably use a natural player at the position, yet the Gunners haven’t missed former starter Alex Song, who abruptly bolted for Barcelona in 2012. Mathieu Flamini provided more than adequate service at the position, while Arteta remains an important veteran presence, though his actual defensive abilities leave something to be desired. Francis Coquelin played 24 games on loan at SC Freiburg, and the 22-year-old could be a quality addition should he return to north London.
Defense and goalkeeping have been bright spots for Arsenal. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has enjoyed an impressive season, and the same goes for No. 2 Lukasz Fabianski, though the latter is expected to depart when his contract expires at the end of June. Center backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been quite reliable, while Thomas Vermaelen appears to be on the outside looking in for playing time. Left back has been a solid spot with Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal performing at a high standard.
Bacary Sagna maintained his typical steady presence on the right side, but signs appear to point to his departure in this summer on a free transfer. Reserve Carl Jenkinson, who was used sparingly this season, would be a decent replacement, but right back is still an area that they would look to the transfer market.
In sum, Arsenal should be in the market for a striker, midfielder, and right back, assuming Sagna moves on. Wenger could settle for low-cost young players to fill those roles as he has in previous years, but would that strike fear in the hearts of deep-pocket teams like Chelsea? Blues boss Jose Mourinho has too much of an ego to go consecutive seasons without a title to not make a play for world-class talent.
The best move might be to make a serious push at the title by spending at least £40 million this summer, which is less than what was spent on one player when they added Ozil. Ideally, Arsenal would have these players available for the season opener, and not wait until mid-September as they did before landing Ozil. Consider how important the home loss to Aston Villa on Aug. 17 threatened their title chances. Having Ozil in the starting XI that day would have been quite helpful to get a critical three points.
Arsenal have been linked to several players that would keep them competitive to hold off Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham. But they can also exceed expectations, like Liverpool in this season’s Premier League and Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, by landing a future superstar.
Julian Draxler of Schalke 04 would appear to be the most logical addition. The 20-year-old German is a promising attacking midfielder with goal-scoring instincts. He would cost roughly £30 million, though Schalke haven’t budged from a reported £37 million buyout clause fee. Otherwise, it may be up to Draxler to prompt a move to England. Aside from the Ozil departure from Real Madrid, Arsenal have kept most of their signings to less than £15 million, but Draxler is likely worth it. He would be a long-term asset at either forward or central midfield.
If Schalke remain steadfast in holding onto Draxler, the next best option is Alvaro Morata. The Real Madrid striker is just 21, but he’s a legitimate talent, and would likely welcome the opportunity to get first team duties. The chances of playing important minutes at the Bernabeu are rather slim, where Morata would compete with superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo. He would likely command a fee of between £10 million and £15 million.
Other possibilities at forward or attacking midfield include Brazilian-born Spain international Diego Costa of Atletico Madrid and Colombian Jackson Martinez of Porto. Both would also come at a hefty fee.
The bulk of the remaining funds in the war chest would then be allotted to right back, should Sagna indeed move on. The Gunners were able to land Monreal for about £8.5 million, so they can likely find a suitable addition for roughly the same amount on the right side.
Sebastian Jung could be the most sensible right back available. The 23-year-old German has 29 Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt this season, contributing six assists, and likely wouldn’t cost more than £5 million. Another right back consideration could be Serge Aurier, of Ivory Coast, who plays in Ligue 1 for Toulouse.
No matter who Arsenal end up with, they have to take into consideration how the Premier League continues to be more competitive. Depth and an upgrade in talent are imperative to ending their Premier League title drought. Wenger can’t rely on his current roster to be consistently healthy and therefore live up to or exceed growing expectations.
This season had notable signs of progress. Ramsey and the central defense stepped up, and Arsenal were able to prove that they are major players with 128 days atop the table. With one Premier League game on the schedule, Arsenal have 76 points, which is the most they have achieved since 83 points in 2007-2008. Even in that impressive season, Arsenal finished third.
There should be contrasting emotions around the Emirates. Arsenal should not only feel grateful and proud that they continue to qualify for Champions League, but also wary for how their competitors are hungry for glory next season.
Arsenal must build on the positives of this season, and reward their loyal supporters with at least two talented signings, because another third or fourth-place aspiration is still setting the bar too low.