It is now almost 14 long years since Arsenal Football Club were last crowned champions of England. And as it stands, Arsene Wenger’s current crop couldn’t be further away from ending that barren spell. Defeat at their fierce North London rivals Tottenham last weekend saw the Gunners fall eight points behind fourth-placed Chelsea in the race for a top-four finish and with it a Champions League qualifying place.
Wenger has also seen superstar forward Alexis Sanchez depart Emirates Stadium for northern powerhouse Manchester United although the Frenchman’s attacking options were significantly replenished by the arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan in exchange for the Chilean and the acquisition, for a club record fee, of Borussia Dortmund’s lethal goal-getter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
However, despite also securing the future of talisman Mesut Ozil on a new three-and-a-half year deal, certain areas of the team still require strengthening if the Gunners are to challenge for a top-four position next term. To Arsenal supporters those areas will be glaringly obvious, although let’s be honest about this, to most educated football fans Arsenal’s problems will have been obvious for a number of seasons now, even if they have not been to Wenger. Here we look at three key areas of the team that desperately require surgery and three players in particular who could find themselves if not entirely surplus to requirements this summer, at the very least fighting for their North London futures.
The Swiss international of Albanian parents arrived from Bundesliga outfit Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2016 for a whopping fee in excess of £30 million with a reputation as something of a long-shot specialist but also as a bit of a liability discipline-wise. Xhaka, whose older brother Taulant represents Albania, has since cemented a place for himself in amongst the Arsenal midfield. However, despite managing to slightly curb his image as something of a hothead – he picked up six red cards in four seasons in Germany compared to two in two-and-a-half seasons in England – Arsenal, for all of their slick passing, still lack an accomplished top quality holding midfielder to break up the play when possession is surrendered. Xhaka is not the answer to this long-standing problem position.
Since Gilberto Silva’s departure a decade ago Arsenal have lacked a dominant holding midfielder willing to sacrifice his own game for the good of the team. The Brazilian organiser allowed the likes of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg the freedom to roam forward safe in the knowledge he would be there to protect the back four. Yet, for all of his own attributes, Xhaka is not a classic holding midfielder who will protect the defence and allow the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Ozil to create havoc further forward. He doesn’t possess the discipline to hold his position in front of the back four and Wenger shouldn’t expect him to either, it clearly isn’t his game. Arsenal have tried the likes of Alex Song, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny in the holding role but it has been an all too obvious deficiency in the team for too long now. Wenger must act this coming summer to remedy the problem. If he doesn’t another season of mediocrity looms and this time it could prove his last.
Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny
A World Cup winner with Germany back in 2014, Mustafi arrived in North London in the summer of 2016 for a fee of £35 million from Spanish giants Valencia. His deadline day arrival, prompted by injuries to first choice pairing Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, smacked a little of panic from Wenger who had reportedly turned down the chance to sign the former Everton apprentice for a substantially lower fee prior to Euro 2016. Arsenal were reported at the time to have been negotiating with Roma for their highly-regarded Greek centre-back Kostas Manolas. However, in a last ditch move before the transfer window slammed shut, Arsenal announced the signing of Mustafi for a vastly inflated fee.
Like the holding midfielder position, central defence is another area of the field where Arsenal have been crying out for top quality additions. In Wenger’s early years, he was able to rely upon a frugile defence consisting of the likes Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon and then Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole. For the huge outlay, Mustafi was expected to come in and forge a watertight partnership with Koscielny. However, despite impressing in previous spells at Sampdoria and Valencia, he has yet to convince the majority of Arsenal supporters and rumours were abound last summer that Wenger was even considering moving the now 25-year-old on.
Koscielny meanwhile arrived in North London back in 2010 from French minnows Lorient and has gone on to establish himself as the one consistent element within the Arsenal defence over the last eight years. However, despite succeeding Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Mertesacker in captaining the Gunners, the French international will be 33-years-old later this year and time may be ticking on his Arsenal career. He may not leave in the summer despite his advancing years and rumours of interest from his native France, but Arsenal are and have been crying out for a solid defence for years.
Arsenal legend Steve Bould was hired back in 2012 following the retirement of Wenger’s long-time assistant Pat Rice and it was hoped that his reputation as a tough dominant defender alongside Adams and Keown would stiffen the Gunners defence. However, Arsenal consistently commit the same mistakes, match after match, season after season and Bould’s influence on the team is hard to visualise perhaps in most part due to Wenger’s inability to recruit the very best defenders.
Strong Spine Crucial
Accusations of the team lacking a strong spine and suffering from a soft centre have continually been thrown at Wenger from various pundits and sections of the media for years now. Yet he never seems to fully address the problem preferring to concentrate his efforts on playing pleasing football. This season the club look destined to miss out on a top-four finish for a second season in a succession as you can see from their odds at Sun Bets, 8/1 to defy the bookmakers.
They do however have a League Cup final to look forward to while Wenger may view winning the Europa League as the club’s best chance of qualifying for the lucrative Champions League once again. If they are to compete in European football’s biggest competition and for a top-four Premier League finish next season Wenger must surely address the team’s long-standing Achilles heel, the spine of the team. If he fails once more his 23-year reign may finally be brought to an involuntarily and undignified end.
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Chris graduated from the University of Brighton in 2007 with a degree in Sports Journalism and is a sports fanatic, spending pretty much all of his money following the Welsh national football team all over Europe (and yes spending five weeks on tour with Wales in France at Euro 2016). He has written for numerous websites and has two fully published football biographies to his name. Chris also enjoys rugby union, cycling and politics and enjoys a regular (okay daily!) punt on football.