One match into the Arsenal season, and there are already calls for manager Arsene Wenger’s head. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST) has come out against Wenger’s impending contract extension offer following a particularly painful home loss to Aston Villa on Saturday.
Much of the vitriol directed at the long-time boss is not necessarily due to the ignominious defeat, but rather the current state of the club entering the first match at The Emirates Stadium. The Gunners squad has been thinned out this summer with a host of departures, including defenders Johan Djourou and Ignasi Miquel being loaned out. With Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen sidelined, when starting left back Kieran Gibbs had to be replaced in the 29th minute, and center back Laurent Koscielny received a red card against Villa, the defensive deficiency was more pronounced than ever.
The more pressing issue in the offseason, however, was up front, with the club seeking to provide competition for Olivier Giroud. With £70 million available in transfer funds for a summer spending spree, the only addition has been 20-year-old forward Yaya Sanogo, who arrived on a free transfer and was on the bench against Villa. A common theme for Arsenal in recent years has been a lack of success due to injuries and many supporters would have expected Arsenal to have learned their lesson by now and have a deeper squad by the start of the season.
Indeed, there was little depth on display on Saturday, though it arguably did not contribute much to the loss. But Wenger will eventually need a full squad to make a real push in the Premier League and Champions League, and more injuries will almost certainly spell doom. Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Monreal, and Vermaelen were all out of action, and the current squad had the feel of the beleaguered group that was a part of the infamous 8-2 thumping to rivals Manchester United at the start of the 2011-12 season. Following that loss, there were shouts for Wenger to be fired for failing to find replacements for midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Yossi Benayoun and Arteta would eventually be added, and Arsenal ultimately managed to regroup from a miserable start and qualify for the Champions League, as Wenger survived.
Here we go again. Arsenal aren’t spending when it is clear they have the resources to add world-class talent, important players are injured and Wenger does not have the confidence of the club’s supporters.
The press has been mum about a star forward joining Arsenal in recent weeks, and this time the consequences of coming up empty handed could be devastating. Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez are no longer in the picture, and now Arsenal’s brass must seemingly either make a panic signing, or accept the fact that Giroud is the sole legitimate striker in the squad. Both options could be a serious problem with the position looking over-extended in the next eight days with a two-legged tie with Fenerbahce in a crucial Champions League playoff and a road match against Fulham.
Arsenal are seriously lacking at defensive midfielder after failing to find a replacement for Alex Song, who left for Barcelona last summer. Reserve Francis Coquelin has been loaned to Freiburg, while Arteta, 31, will be out for six weeks.
Of course, Arsenal had Luiz Gustavo in their sights this month, but were spurned by the Brazilian for Wolfsburg, a midlevel Bundesliga club. Had Arsenal acted quicker, and with perhaps a better offer, they would have had a better chance to add the talented Bayern Munich man, or at least given themselves more time to find an alternative once they were rejected.
The search for a defender would likely be less exhaustive, but the club had previous chances to find a solid English center back in Gary Cahill in the summer of 2011 and memorably failed to do so. Ashley Williams might still be available, but that might not be enough. Bacary Sagna is 30, and Gibbs is frequently injured, so a full back is also probably in order. Vermaelen, who can play as a left back and center back, is expected to be out for another month.
Arsenal have been linked with a pair of players this week, in Yohan Cabaye and Michu, but neither likely would reshape the club’s fortunes or appear an ideal fit. The Gunners need a pure striker, a defensive midfielder, and one or two defenders, and Cabaye or Michu don’t fit the description.
Arsenal fans will expect better. With one big swoop, Wenger could start to regain his standing with Arsenal supporters by adding Tottenham and Liverpool target Leandro Damiao. The 24-year-old is a pure striker, who has 16 appearances with Brazil. He is valued at about £12 million, which is very reasonable for a player of his stature and age. Damiao is not as talented as Higuain or Suarez, but he has potential to be as serious contributor.
While Williams has been targeted to fill the void at center back, Arsenal may also be tempted by a move for Mamadou Sakho. The France international is available having fallen down the pecking order at Paris Saint-Germain. And while adding strength to the center of Arsenal’s back four, the 23-year-old can also fill in at left—back should Arsenal’s injury problems continue in that department. Arsenal would be wise to move quickly, however, with Sakho linked to both Barcelona and Liverpool in recent weeks. .
Perhaps the most obvious move would be to bring back Mathieu Flamini. The 29-year-old would have no problems transitioning back to the Premier League and would arrive without a transfer fee. There are better defensive midfielders available, but Flamini would serve as an acceptable replacement until Arteta returns. Arsenal could and should do better, but this might be the best they can do on short notice.
The combined fees for these players would fall far short of the £70 million war chest that the Gunners have to spend. If Arsenal don’t invest, the club can expect a major blowback from their supporters even more concerted that what was witnessed on Saturday.
There is still time for Wenger to make a move, and he no doubt feels the pressure as the transfer deadline looms over him with ever-increasing prominence.