The All-New Arsenal: What’s Different This Summer?
Amidst significantly high levels of optimism surrounding the Gunners this summer, there’s a myth building up that Arsene Wenger has never bought experienced players or splashed the cash on proven performers in the past. Many seem to be heralding this transformation as a failure of the youth policy as well as a departure from our self-sustaining model.
But is this assumption true? I believe not. Since we last won a trophy in 2005, Arsene Wenger has strengthen the squad each year not only with talented youngsters but players with proven records. And many of these players were between 24-27 years of age when they joined Arsenal, an age band widely considered to be ideal for recruiting footballers.
The table below contains a selection of players signed since 2006 along with their ages at the time of joining and alleged transfer fees paid by the Gunners (source: TransferLeague).
The deadline day signings of last summer have not been included, assuming they were panic buys in reaction to our horrendous start to the season. Even then, Arsenal have spent a decent amount of money each year on proven players. Granted not all have prospered at the Emirates for one reason or another but it’s the objective behind those signings that we’re talking about here. As such, the perception that the Gunners don’t buy players with experience and proven potential is entirely false.
What we haven’t done is to break the bank in a senseless pursuit of hyped-up players. At £16 million, Santi Cazorla becomes Arsenal’s record signing. When you consider that Liverpool paid the same amount for Jordan Henderson, it simply tells you the club have been sensible in spending the limited money available. And this summer is no different – Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla are all excellent buys for the reported prices we paid for them.
Let’s also consider which current players these new signings will replace. Giroud for Van Persie, Podolski for Benayoun and Cazorla possibly for Arshavin. They may not be like-for-like replacements but there’s definitely an effort on Arsene Wenger’s part to compensate for the loss of experienced players with others of similar experience.
What makes this summer different is the timing. Over the years, Arsenal have preferred to haggle and drive down the price of targets by holding on until the eleventh hour. Until Roman brought his oil money to Chelsea, Arsenal were easily able to attract players to the Emirates which meant we could afford to drag negotiations to secure a better deal.
Last summer showed the perils of that strategy. Arsene Wenger and the board have realised correctly that a million or two saved in the haggling process is not worth the risk of disrupting our preparations or worse, losing out on the player entirely with others willing to offer more attractive wages.
Because Arsenal have acted early this time around, the club is much more relaxed about the Van Persie situation. As much as AFC would like to cash in on the discontented Dutchman, it’s also in Robin’s interest to make the move this year because even if he were to leave on a free in 2013, he’ll be 30 then and very unlikely to command the exorbitant wages he’s seeking at present. At the same time, pursuing clubs like United, Juventus and City need the prolific striker now when he’s at the peak of his powers – these same clubs may not want him next year.
So essentially Arsene Wenger hasn’t done anything different from what he does each summer i.e. try to enhance the squad whilst covering for players expected to leave. Although Arsenal have bought well in advance this year, it’s not exactly a change of philosophy or direction.
Which also means that despite new signings, we still face many of the challenges of previous seasons. Chief among them are the inevitable injuries, defensive frailty and a lack of mental toughness.
The pleasing thing about last season was how the team fought back on countless occasions from losing positions. This group seems to have more grit and determination so the last point is perhaps less relevant now than it was a year ago.
However injuries to key players have disrupted many of our campaigns in the past. As much as we hope for the best, Arsenal must plan for the worst. That means rotating the squad so that fringe players are ready to contribute when required. Arsene did not have this luxury last year, what with our terrible start to the league campaign and early exits from cup competitions. That needs to be put right this season.
In defense, the back line looks formidable on paper but there are still far too many individual errors. Plenty of work is also required on the training ground to defend as a team. Interestingly, 4 out of the 9 players in the table above are defenders and when you add Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos to that list, it’s obvious the manager has sought to bring in experienced players to ease our defensive worries. Perhaps things will fall in place this year or at least move positively in the right direction.
More than a change of direction, I think it’s a change of attitude at Arsenal. I don’t believe the club ever lowered their ambitions but the way last summer panned out served as a wake up call. Arsenal Football Club seems better for it and regardless of the departure of Robin Van Persie or even Alex Song, the urgency with which the club have acted this summer is the real cause for renewed optimism among supporters.