The Pragmatist’s Arsenal (glass half-full version)

July 8, 2011 — by Sean

We’d like to thank Rob Kirby, one of our many Arsenal-supporting field agents, for the following take on Arsenal’s “imminent” demise.

Don't look back.

The football media establishment says that Arsenal is out of the title race even before anything’s begun. With the imminent exits of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (on the heels of the £7M Manchester City signing of left back Gael Clichy), pundits have already decided the Arsenal season is done, dead and buried. Supporters, angry over last season’s utter capitulation, are screaming for Wenger’s head, seeing big names go but none coming in.

For the past two transfer windows, everyone was in agreement. We needed a quality goalkeeper, a rock-solid central defender (or two) and a defensive midfielder as backup and competition to Song. And for the past two transfer windows, we got none of them. And now we need a left back and two attacking midfielders, as well? That’s over half the starting XI!

Reality check:

On the GK-side, Szczesny emerged as a badass last season (regrettable Carling Cup fiasco aside). And even Fabianski showed he wasn’t contractually obligated to suck all the time.

Vermaelan, our first choice center half, spent the entire year injured. But now he’s back. Koscielny enters his second season in the league, better adjusted now to the physicality of the Premiership. Meanwhile, Wenger truly seems be on the reinforcements track this time around. (Perhaps someone will even deliver us from Squillaci, while they’re giving us the upgrade…)

The loss of Fabregas can’t be understated, but it’s been a long time coming. Thankfully, Wilshere had a full season to play beside him and learn from one of the masters. And not only did Song put in a solid shift, adding goal-scoring to his bag of tricks, his body seems largely immune to the team’s uber-susceptibility to injury.

But no one chooses to focus on that. It doesn’t sell papers, and if there’s one thing publishing papersellers like, it’s paper sales. So Fleet Street shrieks with the histrionics and the exclamation points. Doomsayers insist that the exit of three players, all of whom have been tipped to leave from the past six months (Nasri, Clichy) to 2 years ago (Cesc), spells the end of the Arsenal Top Four dynasty, not to mention any title aspirations. And wait, crap, Arshavin may go, too! Not to mention the players the club wants to let go: Denilson, Diaby, Almunia, Eboue, Squillaci, Bendtner and Rosicky. It’s an exodus of mass proportions! Forget Champions League, we’ll be battling relegation!

Get real.

First off, worst case scenario, we have the current personnel for each of those positions. Attacking midfielders comprise practically half the team, for God’s sake. And while Gibbs is injury-prone and Traore kind of just plain sucks, they are still currently alive (at last check).

Second, the team can now reorganize. Wenger switched to the 4-3-3 to maximize the star player: Fabregas. Fabregas shined, with perfectly weighted passes and expert playmaking. But while Fabregas proved he truly is destined to be the new Xavi, others were played out of place. Bendtner on the wing? Chamakh on the wing? They are the players you cross to, not ones who should be doing the crossing. Which reminds one of the fact that half the time Clichy couldn’t cross to save his life.
No one would ever choose to see Fabregas in a new jersey, but now the team can adopt a 4-2-3-1 with Van Persie a proper #10 playing just behind the front man. Chamakh and Bendtner (should he stay) would then finally get to prove themselves. Corners may finally actually connect with those Bendtnerian, van Persiean and Chamakhian heads.

Third, money-grubbing mercernary Nasri will go, but Cesc may not. Barcelona refuse to cough up the cash, and as usual continue to whine and cheapskate when it comes to the La Masia prodigal son. Honestly, at this point I want Nasri to go, which pains me to say because I always rated him highly as a player, ever since his first season brace against Man United. He never seemed like a whiny ingrate. Until he did. Disrespect, burned bridges, larger-than-life-sized ego, after just one solitary good first half to one season. Followed by an utterly “meh” end to it. I know he will probably get even better, but he’s already out the door anyway.

Last, Arshavin has frankly underwhelmed since his spectacular 4-goaler against Liverpool in 2009. Flashes of brilliance like the game-winning Barcelona goal, but the mooted £13.5M to Galatasaray would roughly recoup the club’s £15M record signing two years ago. Seems a good bit of business to my mind. And even he knows it’s not working out.

Losing Fabregas will be a kick in the gut, no getting around that, but the writing’s been on the wall so long and he has been such a class act during his eight years at the club that it’s only right to let him return to Barcelona if they finally meet Arsenal’s valuation.

The only way we would really be screwed is if van Persie decides to seek new pastures. But I don’t even want to begin to start to entertain that notion.

Time for some positives.

Ramsey and Wilshere can now fulfill their attacking midfielder destinies. Wilshere played as a half-defensive midfielder because Fabregas was Fabregas, meaning the best (or one of the best) in the world. Meaning Wilshere learned from arguably best (or one of the best) in the world, and the Academy lad was very rightly considered one of the best players in the league this past year, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award.

Speaking of the Academy, the talent coming through the youth ranks should not be sniffed at. And despite what you hear, Wenger is no fool. He will continue to slowly integrate internal talent, as well as finally bring in some big, experienced guns. Perhaps that statement should be backed up by a big wager at an online betting site, but this particular reporter does not have the funds to put money where his alphanumerically textual mouth is. But I believe it will come to pass.
A healthy Vermaelan, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou and Szczesny make a formidable back five. (Remember: Vermaelan and Koscielny, both left-footers, can fill in at left back, especially if reinforcements such as Samba, Jagielka or Cahill arrive.)

If Song doesn’t get incarcerated for the bar fight he allegedly got into in Cameroon (two years if convicted? Yikes.), Wilshere and Ramsey join him as midfield fixtures (and possibly some world-class signing?), with Speedy “Theo” Gonzalez on the right flank. And Robin van Persie up front, along with any number of strikers to choose from. Perhaps even Speedy.

So much then for the exodus.

And onto new signings. Gervinho seems a lock, also apparently a speed demon who can tear down the right flank but can also be deployed on the left. (Theo marauding on the right, Gervinho on the left?) Two 16-year-old Barcelona whizzkids said to be fast-tracked to the first team, and some Finnish gent named Jenkinson (hey, don’t look at me). After that, who knows. Which is vague to one way of thinking, but to another, the sky’s the limit. One or another of Cahill, Jagielka or Samba or two complete unknowns will be joining. Wenger likes to unearth the gems. Think Eduardo, Croatian-Brazilian left field signing extraordinaire (before Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor thugged him with the ultraviolence). And I wouldn’t be surprised if Shay Given came in to fight Szczesny for number one. Player sales generated by £7M Clichy, (hopefully) £20-£25M Nasri and (potentially) £35M-£45 Fabregas will enable Wenger to splash the cash if he so wishes (and of course the never-spent profits from Toure and Adebayor), and I truly believe he will put up the cash for one or two 20- to 24-year-old experienced defensive-minded midfielders and/or central defenders. But my crystal ball is only as good as the next guy’s. (Cloudy.)

And since everyone always hopes for that dream signing, talk of Benzema, Juan Mata, Thiago Motta and others would be incredible, but any of them would sail past the club’s current record outlay of £15M. Possible, but if we go above that benchmark, it would be a more sustainable player-plus-cash proposition like the one proposed for the £17M Cahill move.

Talk of Arsenal as a has-been rankles not because it hits a nerve but rather because it’s such nonsense. Chelsea and the Manchesters have the megamoney (and massive operating losses), but Arsenal will continue to fight the good fight (with operating profits). And when financial fair play practices get instituted, we’ll see how well the sugar-daddied clubs cope. (Magic Eight Ball: Not Looking Good.)

Stay tuned, don’t believe the doomsday hype, and get ready for the new season.