Why Arsenal are in danger of being left behind unless they sign two new players
When Arsene Wenger arrived in English football he was a revolutionary, but as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his appointment he now stands for something different. The rest of the Premier League is embracing the continental model of the short managerial cycle, while Wenger’s Arsenal reign stretches into the limitless distance.
This season Wenger will be competing against coaches who are not just younger than him, but who are rookies in their roles. Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are all in their first few weeks in their new jobs. This is Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge of Liverpool. Mauricio Pochettino, at 44 years old, is a relative veteran, in his third year at Spurs. As Wenger likes to put it: “We live in a world of immediacy”.
With Alex Ferguson now three years into retirement, Wenger is the old order’s last man standing. And the question hanging over Arsenal is whether all that stability is the problem or the solution any more.
The evidence of recent Premier League football is that the quick boost of a new manager can help to propel teams to the title. Of the seven champion teams this decade, three were won by coaches in their first season with that team: Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City and Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea. Jose Mourinho won the 2014-15 title in his second year back at Chelsea, Roberto Mancini in his second full season at City, and the only two exceptions were Ferguson’s final two titles at Manchester United.
Teams to do not need three years to gestate or cohere any more, and that is why Arsenal are under threat this season. City, United and Chelsea all have the coaches, the players and the money to compete for the title in the first season of their new cycle. Liverpool are not quite as well-resourced but have the luxury of no European football to distract them. Throw in Spurs, the champions themselves in Leicester and then the whole newly-rich chasing pack and this will be the most competitive season in years.
Almost every team in the Premier League, with the obvious exception of Hull City, is moving forward fast. Are Arsenal? They have made one senior signing so far this summer. Granit Xhaka is a very good player who will improve Arsenal’s midfield, adding some physicality, control and authority that have been missing ever since Mikel Arteta started to be diminished by injuries, if not before.
But there is a long list of issues at Arsenal that the signing of Xhaka does nothing to address. The problem with a policy of stability is that it requires everything else to stay the same. But Arsenal are in danger of regressing, not just relative to their more ambitious rivals, but in absolute terms too. Because the players on whom the last four years of stability have been built may not be quite as strong this year as they have been before.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has been the most stable central defensive partnership in England for the last few years. But Mertesacker has a bad knee injury and is unlikely to play too many more games in 2016. Koscielny has not returned to pre-season training yet after a draining summer with France and Wenger will not rush him back into the first team.
Santi Cazorla has been the brains of this Arsenal team, but he missed the second half of last season with a knee ligament injury. Arsenal dropped off when he was not there, and even now he is unlikely to be fully ready for Liverpool on 14 August. Then up front Giroud is in the same boat as Koscielny, not back at London Colney yet, not ready for the Liverpool game 12 days away.
This is an Arsenal team, then, which will not be able to start the season at full strength. There is no guarantee that the building blocks of the last few years will be as strong as they have been before. And yet Arsenal are still leaving it curiously late to alleviate these issues, by buying a centre-back and a centre-forward.
Of course in recent years Arsenal have bought Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck on the last day of the transfer window, and there is still plenty of time for them to do that. But the fear is that Wenger does not want to do that, that he would rather solve these problems through other means.
Wenger would always rather an “internal solution”, and can point to the success of Hector Bellerin since emerging from the youth teams as a top quality right-back. Alex Iwobi finished last season well and if his close friend Chuba Akpom can do the same this August then that will certainly make life easier for Wenger. In defence at least one of Rob Holding, Calum Chambers and Krystian Bielik will have to step up over the first few weeks before Koscielny is ready to partner Gabriel.
Wenger himself hopes that the club can build on their stable base by improving every other area of work, from nutrition to fitness to data analysis. There is something in that logic but it assumes that the fundamentals are all in place and cannot be improved upon, which is debatable at best. In a season when every rival is re-launching, Arsenal's stability-first approach is a gamble. They are at risk of being left behind.