Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Preview 2012-13: Arsenal

Arsenal's summer transfer windows in 2011 and 2012 are a study in contrasts. In 2011, Arsenal were paralyzed as manager Arsene Wenger's stubbornness seemed to preclude the club from conducting their necessary business. The negotiations for the sales of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri carried on for several weeks and likely interfered with the club's preparations for the upcoming season. Wenger seemed reluctant to close deals on quality players early in the window (e.g., Juan Mata). Only in the aftermath of a devastating 8-2 defeat to Manchester United on August 28, 2011 (the first time Arsenal had conceded 8 goals since 1896) did Wenger seem aware of how desperate the club's circumstances actually were. With only three days remaining before the close of the transfer window on September 1, he completed deals to bring in Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos, Park Chu-Young, and Yossi Benayoun (on loan). While some of these additions proved quite useful to the club, Wenger only acted at the end of an abysmal month in which Arsenal somehow incurred 3 red cards and captured a single point out of a possible 9.

If the summer of 2011 demonstrated Wenger's deficiencies in the transfer market, the summer of 2012 has reminded observers of his primary strength: identifying and purchasing undervalued talent. Unlike 2011 when Wenger procrastinated buying replacements for wantaways Fabregas and Nasri, Wenger quickly moved to bring in replacements for Robin van Persie, the malcontent striker with only one year remaining on his contract. Far in advance of van Persie's public declaration that he would not be extending his contract with the club, Wenger had already negotiated the purchase of Olivier Giroud who scored 21 goals in France's Ligue 1 (joint top scorer) and Lukas Podolski who scored 18 goals in Germany's Bundesliga (joint 4th leading scorer). Remarkably, Wenger purchased Giroud and Podolski for £13m and £11m, respectively. In the current transfer market, these fees are paltry for players of their caliber of talent. Giroud and Podolski are not Wenger's only marquee purchases on the cheap, however. Arsenal understood that the precarious financial situation of Malaga in Spain's La Liga presented an opportunity. Malaga were (and probably still are) desperate for cash and fast, as several players filed complaints that they are owed back wages (among other debts owed). Arsenal, with plenty of cash on hand, may have negotiated a discounted fee for Santi Cazorla by paying most of it up-front to help alleviate Malaga's near-term financial woes. (In general, most transfer fees are paid over the course of a period of years rather than up-front.) The transfer fee for the highly creative midfielder is reportedly around £16m, which is a great bargain for a player of Cazorla's quality.

Wenger and the club certainly deserve plaudits for their activity in the transfer market thus far. Even so, more questions remain than have been answered by Arsenal's transfer activity. If van Persie leaves, which admittedly seems modestly less likely with each passing day, Arsenal lose 40 percent of their league goals from last season. Can the new additions compensate for this dearth of goals? Maybe but it's a big maybe. Adjusting to the Premier League can take time, and Giroud and Podolski are good players, but they are not of van Persie's quality.

Even more problematic for Arsenal, the back four are not improved from last season. Center back Laurent Koscielny had a fantastic season in 2011-12; can he maintain that level of play? Center back Thomas Vermaelen's positioning was very poor last season. Can he improve and play at the level that people expect him to play? While Per Mertesacker is an adequate backup at center back, if he is required to play regularly, as was the case last season, opponents will likely easily exploit his lack of pace. (As an aside, for someone as tall as Mertesacker is, he is incredibly weak in the air.) Left back Kieran Gibbs is a promising young player, but he seems prone to nagging injuries. He missed nearly 4 months of last season due to a hernia and related complications. Reserve left back Andre Santos is dangerous going forward, but he lacks the sort of defensive capabilities that are generally considered requisite to be, errr, a defender. Most worrisome for the club, right back Bacary Sagna will be out for the beginning portion of the season as he recovers from a broken leg suffered at the end of last season. I think his return in February of last season was incredibly important to Arsenal's resurgence in which they took 27 out of 30 possible points between February 4 and April 11. In my view, Arsenal are a substantially better team, both in attack and defense, with Sagna out on the field. Until Sagna is healthy, I believe that Arsenal are better off playing Francis Coquelin out of position at right back over Sagna's understudy at right back, Carl Jenkinson. Even though Coquelin is an improvement over Jenkinson, he is still a huge drop off in quality from Sagna.

In sum, Arsenal have made three very astute purchases in Giroud, Podolski, and Cazorla. They are in a better position leading up to the season than most fans would have anticipated after van Persie announced his intention to leave the club. Even so, whether Arsenal's attacking players can maintain the potency of their scoring threat in the absence of van Persie (should he leave), and whether the defense can improve from last season are questions to which the answers are far from clear.

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