Buying new players is a simplistic argument when it comes to improving a football team, but where Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are concerned, the coming months are likely to expose a shortcoming which has come back to the bite them many a time. Three FA Cups in four years is certainly worth celebrating but supporters will always look at the Premier League table, where the Gunners are perennial underachievers for the better part of a decade and currently sit in seventh place behind Burnley after 17 games.
Among all the key issues surrounding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s contract situations, there is a gap beginning to emerge at the centre of Arsenal’s defence. On paper they look spoiled for choice in a position they have traditionally struggled to strengthen since the days of Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, but the improved form of Shkodran Mustafi at the start of the season and Laurent Koscielny emphasising his own defensive credentials looked to end that argument until recent results once again outlined the club’s defensive frailties.
The 32-year-old Koscielny found himself the subject of criticism for sloppy errors and lapses in concentration during his first season in English football. He went on to become one of the Premier League’s most solid and consistent defenders, reading the game astutely and forming an impressive partnership alongside Germany’s very own BFG, Per Mertesacker. Koscielny’s form has deteriorated over the past season and a half and it’s mostly the result of a troublesome Achilles injury which he has been forced to carefully manage on a game-by-game basis. Paul Pogba’s assist for Jesse Lingard’s second Manchester United goal at the Emirates a fortnight ago was a painful reminder that the French centre-back is gradually regressing as a top-class defender.
Similarly, Per Mertesacker’s role in the Arsenal squad has seen him resigned to a bit-part role and his performance in the first half of the recent defeat to United served as a reminder that retirement couldn’t come sooner for the German. He will take up a head of academy role at Arsenal in May and his leadership qualities and intelligence are evidently the main reason why Wenger has decided to keep him around the club. Ultimately though, it means that a squad place is being wasted for a younger, more competent central defender who could be part of the next generation in north London.
Mustafi has received mixed reviews from fans and pundits despite going the first half of his debut season unbeaten. Injuries in the second half of the campaign and exit rumours last summer have undoubtedly affected the perception of the World Cup winning defender, who proved in his recent goalscoring appearance against Tottenham that he can star as a reliable defender for the coming years at Arsenal. He is another player who appears to struggle with injuries, although when fit the 24-year-old looks assured in possession and a confident reader of the game.
Worryingly for Arsenal’s young centre-backs, the decision by Wenger to field 20-year-old Ainsley Maitland-Niles at left-back for the 0-0 draw at West Ham doesn’t look promising for the futures of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding. Both defenders are 22 and Wenger was prepared to let Chambers go in the summer, only for him to pull the plug on a departure when he sanctioned the sale of Gabriel Paulista to Valencia. Holding was signed on the cheap from Bolton and impressed in Arsenal’s FA Cup run last season, but a series of shaky performances at the back has seen his appearances resigned to Europa League and Carabao Cup games.
Arsenal have conceded seven goals at home this season, yet away from home they have shipped a 32 goals. In the last three league games Wenger has experimented with a multitude of formations – none of which have produced successful outcomes. It is clear that Arsenal need more than simply a new centre-back but signing one in January would certainly be a start. New head of recruitment Raul Sanllehi has been brought in for his extensive contacts book, although the Gunners may only need to look closer to home and snap up Virgil Van Dijk, a player courted by most of the top clubs in England.
If VVD isn’t realistic due to the competition, then Wenger could make an offer for Roma defender Kostas Manolas, another highly-rated star the Frenchman has been interested in before. He recently signed a new contract with the Serie A giants but they would surely do well to activate his £30.8 million release clause - £5m less than the Gunners paid for Mustafi last summer.
Those two names are just two examples of centre-backs who are available on the market in January and while Wenger may be content with what he has, it remains imperative that the Gunners strengthen in a window where they could lose two of their best players to foreign clubs (if Alexis and/or Ozil sign pre-contracts in January). They may be just one point off the top four but performances aren’t convincing and the players Wenger puts his trust in are still making mistakes. Investment is needed and January can’t come quick enough.