04 September 2013

Wednesday Whine: Suddenly Arsenal fans are all cocky?

(Credit: Football365.com)

Arsenal signed Mesut Özil, and we all relaxed, as though exciting interpersonal exchanges had recently taken place, and we - figuratively, I must stress - were all lying there, smoking cigarettes and asking "Was it good for you?"

Sadly, we've gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. Let things happen too quickly, if you will. Allowed our imaginative passions to run amok. The Özil signing doesn't mean we're lounging in Fortune's bed, making pillow talk - Fortune hasn't invited us in for a nightcap, or even really talked to us. At best, we've caught Fortune's gaze resting on us for a bit too long at a friend's dinner party.

Put more plainly, the mega-deal that happened right at the end of the transfer window doesn't make the summer an unqualified success for Arsenal. But large sections of the fan base are behaving as if the club are a lock for a deeper run in the Champions League knockout stages, a shoo-in for the top four, and even potential league champions in what's shaping up to be an unpredictable campaign in the English top flight. It's in the bag now, right?

No; no, it's not. Not by a long shot. The marquee signing was for a player who plays in one of the few places on the pitch at which Arsenal have even a reasonable amount of depth, and the team failed to address glaring weakness in central defense and up front.

The striker situation is probably the most serious, as of this writing. Olivier Giroud is having a fine start to the season, without a doubt, but with Lukas Podolski absent through injury for the next three months, Giroud and Theo Walcott are the only players in the side that could be called striking options with a straight face. And while Walcott's finishing has improved out of all recognition from his earlier days at the club - it always used to seem like he more or less had to round the keeper to have much chance of scoring - he still doesn't convince as a pure striker.

He's developed into an excellent wing player, certainly, and his scoring record from last season speaks for itself. But while the infamous "footballing brain" strike against him is overblown, it can't be denied that his positional sense and decision-making in the final third is still frequently suspect. He's not actually a bad fallback - his pace and increasingly sharp eye for goal make him very dangerous in the right circumstances, particularly against weaker opposition - but as a main striker, against the toughest defenses, in the biggest games, he's still a fallback.

Arsene Wenger clearly recognizes the danger, with most of his summer attention focused on failed attempts to land Luis Suárez, Gonzalo Higuaín and Karim Benzema. But in the final tally, Arsenal have one excellent striker, a couple lesser options that usually play on the wing, one of whom is out for a large chunk of the season, some young guy named Yaya Sanogo who nobody knows anything about, and a drunk-driving zombie with a chimpanzee brain. A Giroud injury, in summary, would be a catastrophe.

The situation in central defense is much the same. The best option is a very good one indeed, with the top pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker fast becoming one of the better tandems in the league, but the obvious second choice is also unavailable through injury for a long, long time. It's worth noting that Thomas Vermaelen had endured a lengthy and serious drop in form even before his injury, so it's far from certain that he can simply slot back into the squad once he's healthy again.*

After that, the options become even more threadbare. Bacary Sagna has been startlingly impressive when pressed into duty as a center back, but, at the end of the day, he's a fullback, like all the other defenders currently on the first team. Freebie signing Mathieu Flamini could be pressed into service in an emergency, but who's he really going to fool?

All this isn't to say that Arsenal's summer was a disaster. Özil, obviously, is a fantastic signing, both in terms of what he can do on the pitch and the signal he sends to players and fans alike about the club's level of ambition. Flamini** isn't going to set the world on fire, but he brings a ton of experience and adds steel to the midfield. And Emiliano Viviano is arguably the perfect foil for Wojciech Szczesny in goal. The team is measurably stronger than it was before the window closed.

But the fact is that Arsenal remain dangerously weak in two of the most critical positions on the pitch. Even if Wenger is willing to do business in the winter transfer window, his team essentially have to play the entire first half of the season a single injury away from crisis.

If it happens - and I obviously will be knocking on every piece of wood I can find in the hopes that it doesn't - don't say the warning signs weren't there. 

*Personally, I give him the benefit of the doubt - it's entirely possible that his recent crappiness was the product of playing hurt, which could mean that a fully fit Vermaelen will look a lot more like his old, imperious self.

**You could make an argument that Arsenal's mystifying failure to re-sign him all those years ago contributed to Cesc Fabregas' eventual departure and the team's slide from regular title contenders to top-four hangers-on, although it would be almost entirely speculative. Jesus, I still get mad thinking about that.