Arsenal sit proudly atop the Premier League table, and although it’s still early days in the season, there are nineteen other clubs in the league that would gladly swap places with the Gunners. Following what was presented by various elements of the press as a summer of turmoil at the Emirates, with Arsene Wenger apparently receiving rebuff after rebuff in the transfer market, the Frenchman has emerged with reputation as the shrewdest of operators intact. The last minute arrival of Mesut Ozil proved a number of things to the Arsenal faithful. Firstly, that the club has the finances to deal at the top table, secondly that they are prepared to spend that money, and thirdly that the club can attract players of the highest calibre. Wenger has therefore wrung out much of the fans’ dissent that was building up but, if the Gunners want to kick on and sustain a genuine title challenge, there are two deals that Wenger must try and secure in the January window – and one that he must resist.
As has often been the case in the past, the Gunners first choice eleven is probably a match for most, if not all teams, in the Premier League, but history has shown that tiles are not won by teams, but by squads, and the two purchases that I think Arsenal need to secure, and the one they should avoid, are very much targeted at this particular issue. Between the sticks, Wojciech Szczesny remains a ‘keeper of promise rather than present. He is still young in goalkeeping terms. Such as been the advance in sports science and fitness regimes that goalkeepers now regularly play into their late thirties without any loss of performance. On his day, the young Pole can be spectacularly good, but on others his performances can dip and these are not the characteristics of a title winning goalkeeper. The other two ‘keepers in Wenger’s squad are the tried, and dropped Lukasz Fabianski and the Italian Emiliano Viviano, on loan from Palermo, but yet to pull on the gloves for the club in a competitive game. Should injury strike Szczesny the ‘keeper cupboard at the Emirates could look pretty bare. Contrast this to some of arsenal’s rivals. Across London at Chelsea, as well as the alarmingly efficient Per Cech, the Blues have the solid and experienced Mark Schwarzer on the bench. A similar situation exists at White Hart Lane, where French international ‘keeper Hugo Lloris is backed up by the reliable Brad Friedel. Manchester United have the experienced Anders Lindegaard, who substituted competently for David de Gea during his difficult early period after joining United. Liverpool also have competent cover for Simon Mignolet, in the reliable Brad Jones, who played a number of games last season covering for the then incumbent Pepe Reina, without a drop in the efficiency of the Anfield team’s defensive efficiency. Perhaps only Manchester City, strangely given their transfer budget are similarly exposed between the sticks. The recent drop in form of Joe Hart, when Pellegrini contemplated dropping the England number one, but then relented as an under performing Hart was deemed a better option that the alternative of Rumanian ‘keeper Costel Pantilimon, which I guess only emphasises the point. The link in the summer between Arsenal and QPR’s reserve – but Brazilian number one – goalkeeper Julio Cesar suggests that it’s an issue that Wenger is aware of, but the failure to complete the deal, that could have spectacularly good for the Gunners, means the issue is still to be resolved. A possible solution however, may have recently presented itself
Iconic Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas remains frozen out of the Real Madrid team by the excellent form of Diego Lopez. The exclusion can no longer be blamed on a pique by Jose Mourinho, as new manager Carlo Ancelotti has elected retain Lopez as first choice. For Casillas, who will be thirty-three next birthday, seeing out his glittering career on the bench is not an option to contemplate. With the time now passing where patience could be seen as a virtue, rumours are that the golden boy of the all-conquering Spanish Roja, is accepting that a move away from the Bernabeu may be in his best interests. Clearly, it’s difficult to say this definitely, but there’s a persistence about the speculation that just won’t go away, and this often means that someone, somewhere is being briefed by interested parties. Should Arsenal make a move, and land Casillas, it could address a number of issues. Firstly, it would give them a player who remains a master at his craft. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Peter Schmeichel was worth ten points to Manchester United. Much the same could be said about the estimable Cech at Chelsea in their title-winning seasons, and capturing Casillas could give arsenal the same edge. Given that the Spaniard is also the best part of ten years older than Szczesny, utilising the vast experience of Casillas to bring along and develop the Pole for a couple of years or so could be a massive bonus, and offer the Gunners a security of tenure between the sticks for a good few years to come. Additionally, the insertion of a winning mentality such as that possessed by Casillas can only benefit the Gunners’ dressing room. Signing Casillas would be a major coup for Wenger and Arsenal.
At the other end of the park, much of Arsenal’s early season success has been built on the goals of Olivier Giroud. The French striker has enjoyed a storming start to the season. Last term was hardly prolific for him, when in all competitions he netted only 17 goals in 47 games. To date this season, his tally is 6 in 11. Should he be able to maintain that strike rate, it will be the sort of return to drive the Gunners in a title challenge, but with the only true central striker cover being Nicklas Bendtner, a player that Wenger has tried and discarded a number of times previously, an injury to Giroud, or a return to last season’s strike rate could stall any momentum. Again Real Madrid may offer a solution. With talk of approaches from Los Blancos for Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, or Monaco’s Rademal Falcao, rumours abound that French striker Karim Benzema’s race may be run in Spain’s capital and the player could be available for a cut price £20 million. Whilst, if this is true, there may well be a queue to sign Benzema, Arsenal could be well served by pushing their way to the front of the line of suitors. Benzema is not only a reliable goal-scorer at the highest level, he is also astute enough to play with or without a partner and has the flexibility to perform equally well in either role. Either playing with, or instead of Giroud, Benzema could be the key to ensuring a continuation of goals from the sharp end of the Gunners’ attack. The beauty of these two deals of course, and it’s doubtless something that would appeal top Wenger’s prudent approach is that neither player would require the sort of transfer fee laid out for Ozil. If the deals can be done, the two combined would hardly threaten to put a big dent in the transfer war chest apparently available to the Arsenal manager. There is a however, one deal that Wenger must avoid.
With Mertesacker and Koscielny established as the regular centre back partnership, former captain, and stand out defender Thomas Vermaelen has been side-lined somewhat. With Belgium qualified for the world Cup next summer and Vermaelen understandably keen to be part of the exciting Belgian squad, first team football is becoming an increasingly desperate need for the defender. Recent rumours have linked Vermaelen with a desire to move from the Emirates if his opportunities do not improve. Whilst the player’s position is of course understandable, it’s vital that Wenger resists any temptation to let him leave. The reasoning is very simple, and akin to that mentioned above. Should injury strike either of the first choice pairing, having someone like the Belgian to drop in is an invaluable asset. To placate the player’s desire to play more regularly, this may mean offering him a number of starts, but with the Champions League now in full group stage swing, and the domestic cups on the horizon, this shouldn't be too difficult to achieve.
If Wenger can achieve the two buys and resist any attempt by Vermaelen to move on, this season could be the the one when Arsenal’s trophy drought is finally put behind them. With the opportunity opened by having new managers at their main rivals, it’s time to get the Gunners firing.