05 September 2014

Friday Throwdown: Analyzing the Transfer Window

New signing Welbeck will see plenty
of playing time in his favored position
(Credit: Wikimedia)
Sam: So, Andy. Arsenal had something of a Jekyll and Hyde transfer window this summer; it started so brightly with the arrivals of Alexis, Chambers, Debuchy and Ospina, leading us fans to believe that things were finally going to change, and that we had all summer to add further to the squad. However, the second part of the window passed without anything happening until Danny Welbeck arrived after an extension at the deadline. I've already made my feelings clear, and after a couple of days have passed my mood hasn't improved greatly. Many Gooners have had their cautious optimism completely torn down; how are you feeling about Arsenal's transfer business?

Andy: Now that everything is said and done, I don't feel bad and I don't feel good. I think that steps were made but also needs were ignored. If you liked last year's team then you should like this year's team as well; the question is whether or not last year's team was good enough to win the league.

At first blush that seems like an obvious "no" since they finished seven points out of first and weren't in the hunt in May, but it is easy to say that this was largely due to the midfield injury bug that bit in early 2014, costing the Gunners Theo Walcott for half the season, Aaron Ramsey for several months, and several weeks here and there for important players like Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mesut Özil. Combine that with the fact that it was Ozil's first year in the Premier League and you could make the argument that if things had broken slightly different, Arsenal would have been a contender to the end if not league winner.
Viewed in that light, the signings were great. Arsenal replaced outgoing players with quality in Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina, plus they brought in the versatile star in the making Callum Chambers. Combine that with Alexis Sanchez, a marquee signings with a desperately needed skill set, and you have the makings of a perfect transfer window. So why my reservations?

For one, that "could have been champions" line assumes a lot when you try to apply it to a new year. In a short list: there will be no major injuries this year; Sanchez fits in immediately and is a match-winner; Ozil is destined to improve in his second year; the progression of Ramsey and other young players continues; Mikel Arteta can play well as defensive midfielder; and several other issues I've not yet touched on. Your thoughts on these issues may vary but I think it's safe to say we would not receive a unanimous "oh yeah, nothing there is a problem" response.

The other more glaring issue is that if you asked anyone at the start of the August what Arsenal's biggest needs were, without hesitation they would have said "cover at center back, a defensive midfielder, and a striker." While I don't believe in the latter (I swear, my tombstone will say "Arsenal Were Good Enough to Win the League with Olivier Giroud" I think the first two points were nigh unassailable. Even if Arteta was good enough to play the position all year round, the Gunners still need cover beyond Mathieu "Captain Yellow Card" Flamini. The center back situation was even more obvious. Our first choice pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny is very good, but when the only cover is a 19 year-old who might not even be a center back, it's pretty clear that reinforcements need to be brought in. But they weren't, and I still don't understand that.

You're more upset about this than me, Sam, but I still have my doubts about how things were done. Where do we agree and where do we disagree?

Sam: My opinions aren't so black and white in terms of agree/disagree, but to answer your question I do agree with most of what you said. While I like the incoming signings, I don't actually think we've added anything to the squad. If you look at the teams that finished above us last season, they've all added in terms of quality and depth: Chelsea finally got a striker who can put the ball in the net in Costa and a midfielder who can dictate their play from deep in Fabregas (as an aside, earlier this summer we disagreed about whether Arsène Wenger should have brought back our erstwhile captain - after seeing his start to the season I'm now beginning to side with your opinion that, yes, we damn well should have); Manchester City lost no one of real importance and added Fernando, Eliaquim Mangala, Bacary Sagna, Willy Caballero and more to strengthen an already formidable title-winning squad; Liverpool sold last season's player of the year but added Mario Balotelli and more to improve their team; even Manchester United, Everton and Tottenham have added depth and quality. Arsenal, however, let 3 (true) first-team players go, replacing them with players of equal or slightly better quality (Vermaelen-Chambers, Sagna-Debuchy, Fabianski-Ospina) with Sanchez and Welbeck the only 'real' additions in my eyes. So while I tend to agree with you that Arsenal did have enough to win the league last season, I feel like the summer's transfer activity around the league will leave us further behind this time out.

What I find completely unacceptable is the failure to bring in any defensive cover. I don't hate that we didn't bring in a defensive midfielder, as Arteta and Flamini will do just enough (though are not the quality required for a sustained title push), and Arsène hasn't bought a player in that mold since Gilberto left, so I wasn't expecting a lot of movement there. But to know, from the end of last season, that you were going to let your club captain leave, as well as having Johan Djourou finally come off the books, and not go all out for a true center-half to add cover to the position is a travesty. All it will take is one of Mertescielny to get a mild injury and our defense will be at bare bones. Again, Chambers has looked good, but is far too rash and has noticeably been beaten by opponents in key positions/situations. I can't accept that Wenger thinks that Chambers and Monreal are good enough, playing out of position, for a full season. I know we can redress this issue in January, but Arsenal are traditionally quiet in the winter window, and they may well be too far behind by that point anyway.

As anyone can probably tell, I am very pessimistic about this season. Do you have any optimism, Andy? Can you see a silver lining in the gray cloud above my head?

Andy: Of course I can: Arsenal have a really really good squad and will be high up the table yet again this year. Our attacking force includes world class players like Ozil, Sanchez, and Aaron Ramsey. Chamberlain is posed to be the breakout star of the year, Walcott is returning to add pace and stretch the defense, Santi Cazorla is the same brilliant playmaker he has be, and so on and so on. I also think you may be giving short shrift to Welbeck, a player that fits well into the style of football Arsenal play. He's a worker who makes good runs and can finish around the box. At the very least, this team should be a ton of fun to watch once everyone gets back to fitness and on the same page.

Should Arsène have travelled to Rome on
deadline day?
(Credit: Wikipedia)
The risk, as you have correctly outlined, is the lack of depth in defense. And it is a huge risk as one injury could indeed have us shuffling players out of position and asking too much from youngsters that we're trying to develop. That's the baffling part of the business conducted this window and one has to wonder what the plan in place is besides blood sacrifices to ensure an injury-free campaign.

That's the frustration with Arsenal this year, and most years since the heyday of the Invincibles: they are an excellent team who we are spoiled to complain about each week, but they are maddeningly one step removed from being the best that each iteration of the team could be. As plenty have said on Twitter and elsewhere, if Arsenal had bought an experienced center back (or a non-project younger player) then this window would have been considered an unqualified success for most. Yet here we are again. It leaves me in this strange middle ground rather than under the ominous clouds occupying your current location, but that's still a place less than perfect when it easily could have been otherwise.

Since I follow you on Twitter, I have already bristled at your Wenger comments, but please lay them out here for anyone who hasn't seen them. Do you really believe Arsene is the problem with Arsenal's transfer policy?

Sam: Let me be clear, I'm on board with the Welbeck signing. Granted, it wasn't what I would have wanted at the beginning of the window, and especially when Giroud got injured, but after some reflection I think he'll be a good player for Arsenal. He fits in with a strong British core and has already stated his intent to work hard and make the runs needed around the box. From his first interview, he sounds like he's very excited about playing with the likes of Özil, Cazorla, Walcott, Sanchez, Ramsey, etc. And if there's one thing that swings me round to a player, it's when he shows a passion or excitement for playing for the Club.

To answer your question, though ... I think Arsène is part of the problem, but the board need to take some of the blame too. Ever since the new commercial deals were announced, we've been told that the Club finally have enough money to challenge the oil-rich clubs in the transfer window, and by extension, the major trophies. However, when you have a glaring hole in your team that needs to be addressed, and have at least a month to deal with it (I'm talking central defense here), you HAVE to do something about it. Wenger should have been making inquiries and an effort to spend the money Arsenal supposedly have. Look, we will never know the ins and outs of every deal, and which rumors are true, but when you see players like Kostas Manolas and Sokratis supposedly available, and for relatively good prices, you really should be making a move for them. If Vermaelen leaves for £15m, that should be available to reinvest, plus his wages are off the book so there's money to use on a replacement there too. I just feel like Arsène has become too stubborn and set in his ways; the more the press and fans call for him to spend money, the more he wants to revert to his original philosophy - that of signing unknown or underrated players and getting the best out of them. It just hasn't worked for 10 years. And the board. I mean, how, HOW, do you give your manager permission to leave the country and faff about in a charity match on what could have been - and may well prove to be - a season-defining day? It's simply unacceptable. Am I just being completely stupid about this?

Andy: I don't think you're being stupid about it, but I also don't react to it on the same level. Let's not forget how much people were moaning about Arsene being "on vacation" in Brazil and then oh wow, here comes Alexis Sanchez to The Arsenal. Not to mention that this Welbeck deal, which wasn't in the press at all before Deadline Day, got done with our manager in Rome anyway. So though it's an easy talking point, I don't think all of that is terribly important.

I agree with you to a point but allow me to play Devil's Advocate here because I think there are some important issues to mention. You're not wrong that Arsenal needed to find coverage at center back, but think about the ways we've tried to solve that in the past. Do the names Squillaci and Djourou ring a bell?  When you bring in just anyone to act as cover you run the risk of getting players who aren't talented enough or not willing to play that backup role, and then you have to wait years to get their wages off the books, impairing your ability to sign new players in the meantime. That's not to say that Manolas would be Version 2.0 of our mistakes of fullbacks past, but he wanted first team action and pushed to go to Roma instead. Even if you make an offer Olympiakos couldn't refuse, who's to say you get a motivated player in return?

My worry with all of this "he was available, we should have gotten him!!" talk is that we have no idea what was happening behind the scenes and it's entirely possible the players didn't mesh with the expectations Arsenal would have for them, or that the rumors floated around were just that. I'm not excusing the inability to bring in another player, but I was very happy to finally get all of the significant dead weight off of the roster and picking up just anyone is a great way to get right back into that mess.

That's an extreme defense because it's not hard to imagine the Gunners getting at least one of the defenders that we've seen move during the window, but the point does remain: do we want to see a player brought in for a four month fix (the January window does still exist even if we aren't normally that active in it) and then have them linger for several years afterward? I acknowledge the risk in not adding but I'm not sure that it's this automatic black mark that everyone is making it out to be (cue Mertesacker and Koscielny colliding on a header, leaving us with a Chambers/Flamini center back pairing).

Sam: Unlike a lot of the Arsenal Twitterati, I actually had no problem with Wenger being in Brazil earlier this summer, because, here's the thing: he was in the same country as all of the world's best players. If you want access to players and their agents, what better place to be than the World Cup. I can't imagine Arsène was commentating on every match for French TV, and hell, he had just ended a nine-year trophy drought. The guy is 64 years old, let him enjoy a little time on the Copacabana. At that point in the summer he still had about 2 months to complete his business; disappearing to Rome for a charity match in the last 24 hours of the window, 2 hours of which were almost definitely spent away from his phone, is a completely different matter.

You make a good point about the stiffs we've had in the center of defense in recent years, but we also didn't have Mertescielny during those years. Djourou and Squillaci came in after the likes of Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell had departed, and were also supplemented by the likes of Gallas and Silvestre. I just feel like, with the BFG and Laurent already in place, an experienced body of any kind would have done a job, and definitely would have made me, personally, feel better about any potential injury. Yes, we have the January window, but four months is half a season, and anything could happen in that time.

What pains me most is that my cautious optimism has almost completely been destroyed. After we won the Cup and signed Alexis - hell, even up to the Community Shield - I felt like Arsenal were in position to finally contend again. That feeling has now eroded. Of course, I will support the team and every player that dons the red and white this season, but I've lost a lot of faith in Wenger and the board. I'm sure I'll calm down in a week or two, and here's hoping I'm proven wrong in the upcoming months.

Our next match against Man City will go a long way to determining how I feel about the rest of 2014.

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