I will make no bones about it, I think Arsenal need to strengthen the spine of the team. I have called for Arsenal to buy a keeper for a year and a half, for Arsenal to buy a defensive midfielder for five years, and while I haven’t been on the center forward bandwagon as of late, if Arsenal were to buy a top quality center forward I wouldn’t complain.
The keeper comment will get me in trouble, I know, because it’s unpopular to say anything negative about Wojciech Szczesny. The way I have phrased this in the past is that Szczesny needs a legitimate backup. Someone like Mark Schwarzer of three years ago who can back him up and take over if needed but who isn’t in direct competition for the long-term. I’m going to be more direct: Szczesny needs competition.
There are better keepers out there, like Simon Mignolet. And if Arsenal bought Mignolet and Szczesny can’t beat Mignolet for the starting spot right now then he we have to question whether Szczesny deserves to be starting right now? I’m sorry but if we saw Almunia flapping at crosses the way Szczesny has been the last few weeks, or parrying shots back to the middle the way he has the last few weeks, there would be riots in the streets of Islington.
Maybe Szczesny is just going through a bad patch, I’m not sure. Maybe he will be a great goalkeeper one day, I’m not sure. I am, however, pretty sure that he’s not a great goalkeeper right now. His one saving grace, his supposed “presence”, has gone missing and I happen to believe that he needs someone to push him to get that back. Vito Mannone is not that someone. Nor is Fabianski if he ever gets healthy again.
In front of Szczesny it would be nice if Arsenal could stop tooling around with undersized midfielders and get someone of the stature and power of Patrick Vieira or Emmanuel Petit back into this team. I have made no secret that Vieira is my favorite player. Of course, Henry played the beautiful game, but it was Vieira who could pick out a pass as beautifully as Cesc Fabregas in one moment and stand up to a thug like Roy Keane in the very next.
Vieira often gets a bad rap as a destroyer but as Gunnerblog points out in his tribute to the man he was so much more: he was so much more that Arsene has to use three midfielders now to do what Vieira and Petit used to accomplish as two.
There are players out there who do what Vieira used to do, big, muscular players who don’t shy away from a tackle, who get their head in on challenges, who understand basic defending, and who can switch from defense to offense in a flash. Arsenal, sadly, don’t have one. Diaby is not that kind of player because let’s face it, he’d rather be playing in Cazorla’s position than Mertesacker’s. Arteta (bless him) is one of the best passers in the world right now but he lacks the physical presence of Vieira.
Wilshere could be that player. He would stand up to Roy Keane, no doubt. He also has that silky smooth dribble and the natural inclination to go forward that made Vieira more than just a defensive midfielder. But I think he needs someone next to him to help with the physical battles so that he’s not going it alone so often. Someone tall, who can fill in at center back when needed and who wins the aerial duels that Wilshere can’t. Someone to hunt with Wilshere in a pack, like Petit and Vieira. Wilshere could be the mini-Vieira and that would mean that Arsenal could use a bigger version of Petit — though, Petit wasn’t exactly tiny at 185cm.
Reportedly, Arsenal are scouting Maxime Gonalons tonight as Tottenham play Lyon in the Europa League. And Gonalons sort of fits the bill of the type of player that I would like to see at Arsenal. He’s 4th in Ligue Un in tackles per game (3.7) and tied for 7th in interceptions (3.1). He’s also 8th in the Ligue in fouls (2.1) and 12th in being dribbled by opposition midfielders (1 per game). So, he’s a very active midfielder who gets stuck in to the tackle but also gets bypassed and is known to commit fouls. Where Gonalons really shines though is in his passing and especially his accuracy from distance.
As you can see from the chart above, Gonalons is very Arteta-like in almost every stat. He’s a tidy passer, who is plenty accurate from distance (83% is very good), and keeps possession at a rate that puts him among the best. I tend to look at turnovers (which are unforced errors) as a key indicator of a player’s touch and as you can see he’s only had 17 tunovers this season. He’s also been consistently playing at this level for two years. There was a slight uptick in his long ball percent (he was 77% last season) but all the other stats have been roughly the same.
Two of Gonalons’ goals have come from headers and he is surprisingly good in the air both offensively and defensively. He has won 73% of his aerial duels and that is a better rate than anyone at Arsenal.
That said, I can build a case for Arsenal to go after Etienne Capoue instead of Gonalons. Capoue’s got more of the pure destroyer in him than Gonalons, despite the fact that Gonalons has more tackles. Capoue is a much more physically imposing midfielder, he wins a lot more headers than any other midfielder (8th in Ligue Un), has a significantly better clearance rate than Gonalons, and has only been dribbled past 10 times.
His passing numbers are not great but they are workable and he’s a real threat off set pieces and is a powerful midfielder in the counter attack. Gonalons and Capoue met earlier this year and despite Capoue having a poor passing game, he really outplayed Gonalons. The last goal in particular was, well, you watch it and tell me who this reminds you of:
Personally, I’ll take either Capoue or Gonalons. But if I have to choose I think Capoue would fit with Wilshere better. You’ll note that I also included M’Vila in my graphic. I still think M’Vila has the talent to make it at Arsenal, but I’m not sure that he has the mental strength. After falling out with the French national team he has really hit a slide. His transfer to Rubin Kazan for just about £12m was a significant discount on the £20m Arsenal were quoted this summer.
None of those players are going to be cheap. Capoue will break the Arsenal record as he is now attracting interest from PSG who want someone to play along side Blaise Matuidi now that Motta is 30 and Veratti is struggling. Gonalons is the darling of the French press right now. And a keeper like Mignolet is not going to be cheap.
But Arsenal have the money.