Arsenal

The January transfer window is open for business. Your move, Mr. Wenger.

Silly season is here again. After the last minute gift-buying and the after-Christmas sales, January rolls around and we break out a whole new shopping list: transfers. Strikers, wingers, attacking midfielders, defensive midfielders, full backs, wing backs, and center backs, and maybe throw in a third-string goalkeeper for bargain’s sake.

In Gooner fantasy land, this is what Arsene Wenger’s January shopping list looks like. And coming back to reality is difficult when the manager has been on the record saying things like:

“We are looking everywhere. We are open minded. We want to strengthen the squad everywhere.”

Arsenal are in fact in need of some squad refurbishing — as they always are. Compared to other top clubs in England, the Gunners’ squad list is depressingly lacking in any real depth. With no disrespect meant to the tremendous qualities of Podolski and Cazorla, the buys of late have been patchwork fixes rather than real solutions. Fiscal prudence, patience, and youth may be what’s right for Arsenal, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this formula is not what’s right for competing in the EPL. Not these days. Not when your opponents are Chelsea, United, City and their checkbooks.

Now sitting below Everton in the table, Arsenal are 18 points behind first place, five points behind Tottenham, and two places off Champions League qualification. Recent results, however, have not actually been as bad as some would have you believe. Apart from the Southampton draw, Arsenal have won four of their last five matches; two of these, by a three-goal margin.

The trouble with Arsenal is not scoring, exactly. The trouble with Arsenal is consistency. Every other match day, it seems, the same refrain is heard from manager and fans alike: the team isn’t linking up right. The attack isn’t clicking. The midfield isn’t ticking. Something’s missing.

That magic something is time. Eleven players do not automatically make a team. Even Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp needed some time to get into the rhythm of things. And this is where the fantasy transfer window shopping lists crash against the hard facts of reality. Players who can “hit the ground running” are great. Big-name, instant-impact transfers are fantastic. But when you introduce five of those guys into a team at once, the impact tends to destabilize the whole structure.

Stability is not actually an unfamiliar concept to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger has, after all, been with the club for 16 years and has steered the club safely and victoriously. One or two wobbles does not change this fact. What has changed, however, is the face of the English game. The patience required to build a team under Wenger’s vision is, frankly, not a viable option these days. Gooners have seen this pattern often enough to understand: Wenger finds a diamond in the rough, polishes him and turns him into a world-class player, then along comes a Barcelona or a City to whisk him away in a cloud of cash. Rinse, repeat.

Arsenal need to grow a backbone, no pun intended. This team lacks a core. The once-revered quartet of “Theo van Nasregas” is down to just Theo Walcott, and he looks ready to leave come summer. If there is a new Arsenal core taking shape, given injury records and overall playing time, it begins and ends with Mikel Arteta.

Wenger was right to say Arsenal need to strengthen everywhere. Arsenal need something of a complete overhaul. It will not be completed in the January transfer window — if, indeed, anything will be. But January is a chance to re-assess and, if nothing else, to restart the conversation about what needs to be done to achieve desired results.

Going back to front, Arsenal’s defense is up first. Johan Djourou has confirmed that he will be going on a six-month loan to Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga. The current agreement does not include an option to buy, and Arsenal’s longest-serving player could return to the Emirates to see out his contract. With Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Mertesacker ahead of him in the pecking order at Arsenal, Djourou is within his rights to seek playing time elsewhere. This move does leave Arsenal in a bit of a hairy situation, however: should two center backs find themselves out of action at any time this spring, Wenger will have to call on either Sebastien Squillaci or Ignasi Miquel instead.

Throughout December rumors abounded that Arsenal were interested in the Zambian international Stoppila Sunzu. The versatile 23-year-old defender can play either in central defense or defensive midfield, and last year scored the winning penalty for Zambia against the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations final. On paper, Sunzu might be exactly what Arsenal needs: insurance in central defense, flexibility, and a bad memory to light a fire under Gervinho.

With Djourou out on loan and Squillaci leaving when his contract runs out this summer, the jockeying for fourth-choice center back takes on new complexities. The 20-year-old reserve player Ignasi Miquel may yet get his promotion, though the youngster still lacks the experience and is a poor choice compared to Djourou. The arrival of a defender like Sunzu, however, would all but signal the end of Djourou’s career at Arsenal, and bump Miquel’s ambitions back by a few years as well.

Sunzu’s current club TP Mazembe are looking for a A?5m fee, with Reading FC also in the race for the Zambian international. Other defenders linked with Arsenal at the moment include Everton’s Leighton Baines and Southampton’s 17-year-old Luke Shaw.

Moving on to the midfield. Apart from lingering questions of how much longer before Diaby and Arshavin are shown the door, Arsenal’s midfield looks relatively fine. Another Mikel Arteta would not be amiss, if cloning technology were available. Or, say, someone like Nuri Sahin. Given the circumstances, however, expect Wenger to leave his midfield be for the foreseeable future.

The question of Arsenal’s forwards was the most debated and abused in the lead-up to January. West Ham are reportedly in the market for the much-maligned Marouane Chamakh, which would leave Arsenal with only one true striker come February unless Wenger does something about it. Theo Walcott’s contract is still up in the air, though talks apparently have resumed between the two parties, which is a marginal step forward. Nevertheless, Arsenal are sorely lacking in reinforcements up front, and if Wenger moves for any player at all this January, it ought to be for a striker.

The strikers most heavily linked with Arsenal for a January move were Thierry Henry, Demba Ba, and David Villa. Henry had been training in London while Wenger considered a second loan spell for his record goalscorer, the manager finally stated on Tuesday that Henry would not be returning to Arsenal due to lack of match fitness. Meanwhile, Chelsea leapt ahead in the race for Ba as they triggered the striker’s A?7.5m release clause, and Barcelona’s director of football flatly said that the Catalans would be keeping Villa in January.

Crystal Palace’s 20-year-old Wilfried Zaha, meanwhile, has expressed his interest in joining Arsenal and playing in the Premiership, though Ian Holloway insists that the club have received no bids for the winger/striker.

There is also talk of Arsenal being interested in a certain La Liga based striker, with most guesses pointing to Atletico Madrid’s Adrian Lopez. The striker’s buyout clause is A?14m.

Given Arsene Wenger and Arsenal’s track record with January signings, this window may well be rumor-filled but ultimately uneventful. Which perhaps may just be as well. One over-priced striker is not likely to turn Arsenal’s season on its head. What’s needed is time, and serious new groundwork done during the summer break.

The same questions will remain, however: should Arsenal splurge for the strikers? Should the board back down from their fiscal policies, and give Wenger a bigger checkbook? Or should they carry on as they have? Arsenal’s refusal to play by everybody else’s rules is admirable in a way. But it has consequences — namely, in league position and results.

As the rumor mill goes into overdrive this month, it may be time for the club and the fans to ask themselves: What do they really want from all this? An Arsenal with integrity, or an Arsenal with trophies?
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