After yesterday’s resolution to the Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona transfer saga, one question alone should now be dominating the corridors of Arsenal’s camp, just as it most certainly will be among fans: how do we replace the captain and strongest midfielder?
The Fabregas question is one that comes with a unique set of issues based on what the player offered to the team: he was invariably called their playmaker, the conduit through which the majority of their progressive play came, but he was perhaps better considered as Arsenal’s cornerstone. His defensive duties were after all just as important a part of his game, and in last season’s capitulation against Newcastle United, in which the team conspired to through away a four goal lead, it was no small coincidence that he was conspicuously absent in those duties during the second half.
So Arsenal don’t just need someone with the flashy technical abilities to wow the fans, they need someone with presence, poise and power in the middle of the park. Someone they can build a team around, meshing already present talents to this newly found/developed focal point, and most importantly of all, someone who can lead.
Well, here’s how they might solve that problem…
A point of contention this, given how toothless and uninspiring the performance against Newcastle, but Arsene still has a wealth of midfield talent at his disposal. The squad currently boasts nine recognisable first team midfielders -assuming Gervinho and Theo Walcott are going to be employed in advanced midfield roles and not as out and out strikers, with the trio of Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury and Craig Eastmond adding to that base. Of that group, the greatest potential for the Fabregas role comes through Jack Wilshere – a likely future captain of Arsenal (and perhaps England as well), who has the passion, though perhaps not quite the temperament to carry the weight of that responsibility.
The real problem though, is the age and relative inexperience of that crop of players – something that was never quite as much an issue as it now in light of Fabregas’ defection and Samir Nasri’s likely departure to Man City. Among those left, there is no leader, noone to drag the team up by the scruff of the neck and get them playing, and nor is their any mettle – Arsenal can undoubtedly play football, and aside from Alexander Song who seems to perpetually confuse steel with violence, their midfield is set up for attacking flair. And that bias simply plainly won’t do them any favours without a lynchpin player who they can employ as an anchor, the same way Claude Makelele transformed the way Chelsea have tactically built their team since he so successfully captured the hearts of Stamford Bridge.
So, you’d think the greatest opportunity to fill the considerable void would be to turn their attentions elsewhere, with a huge crop of names already appearing in connection with a move to the Emirates…
Turn To The Foreign Market
Ironically, it may have to be towards Newcastle, and their infamously frugal model for player acquisition that Arsenal turn their attention if they are to take advantage of the restricted circumstances they now find themselves in. That club, under the ownership of Mike Ashley have publicly expressed the intention to follow the Arsenal model of low expenditure, talent development and sales for profit in order to maintain a sensible approach to team-building and squad development, but have had the spanner of a huge influx of transfer cash thrown into the works. But rather than pumping the £35m gained from Andy Carroll’s move to Liverpool (as promised), the club have continued to acquire low-cost talents, based on a supposedly extensive scouting programme, and every suspicion points towards the fact that the fanbase will eventually come around to that model IF the team can perform well on the pitch.
Arsenal’s situation is very much a mirror of the Newcastle one, though the London club has the benefit of a superior foundation of talent to which they can add all incoming players, so the answer for Arsene may be in finding a superior scouting talent like Graham Carr who is charged with the burden of finding largely unheralded talents available at “efficient” prices. That model isn’t a quick way to answer the fans’ calls for investment or prestige signings, but it can certainly work to address the immediate needs of the team, which is exactly what must take precedence.
Having said that, there are a number of higher profile players who would be perfectly suited to filling the Fabregas-shaped hole, and it would be rude not to mention them at least briefly:
- Juan Mata [Valencia]
- Jadson [Shaktar Donetsk]
- Wesley Sneijder [Inter Milan]
- Daniele De Rossi [Roma]
Plunder the Premiership
The answer for Arsenal’s midfield question could well lie closer to home: while the team has built a reputation of playing their own brand of football – an anti-Premiership style in fact on the balance of play – the lack of trophies in the past few years and the late season fade implies that that style is no longer appropriate for a concentrated push, especially at the end of the season. Integration with a more recognisable English style may be the answer, though an abandonment of that commitment to progressive play would also be disastrous – so bringing in one player who possesses both grit and flair would appear to be the most reasonable answer.
There are a number of players of that vein currently plying their trade in the Premiership (and one notable option in the Championship), and each of the five suggestions below would do a more than admirable job as the new central midfield focal point that Arsenal so dearly need:
- Joey Barton [Newcastle United]
The enfant terrible of Premiership football, who spends as much time tweeting as he does thinking up new variations on his side-parting (he’s currently rocking a Travis Bickle variant) would certainly add British grit, and his current employers may well be happy to see the back of him sooner rather than later. For his sins, Barton is also a massively passionate player, whose enthusiasm is often highly contagious in his fellow players, though his lack of discipline in choosing when to unleash a long pass and when to play simply would need to be stamped out as soon as he joined.
- Cheick Tiote [Newcastle United]
A far more appropriately “Arsenal” player from within the ranks up at Newcastle, Tiote has been a revelation since coming in for what looks to be a ridiculously low fee at the end of last August. His discipline record is appalling, but his range of passing and the defensive qualities he brings to the centre of midfield would work as the perfect Makelele-style anchor for Arsenal. Plus, a good deal of his cards last season were picked up chasing backwards when other team members (like Kevin Nolan predominantly) lost the ball. Will never fret about putting his body on the line for the good of the team, but he’s far more classy and intelligent a player than that might initially suggest, and if Arsenal dont bid for him, one of the top four no doubt will by next summer.
- Scott Parker [West Ham]
If Parker starts September as a West Ham player, there will be no justice in the world: he was last year’s Footballer of the Year, and almost single-handedly dragged the London club away from the threat of relegation, before the inevitable happened and they slipped into the Championship with a whimper. Arsenal could do a lot worse than pick up Parker – though his wages might be an impediment – gaining an England international with class and grit when needed, with a number of years of top flight experience and the potential to get better in a superior team.
- James McCarthy [Wigan]
A slightly left-field choice, though one who has already featured on the Arsenal radar if reports in the media are to be believed. His high-energy, combative style, which often draws comparisons with a younger, more mobile Steven Gerrard would make him a strong acquisition for any upper-tiered Premiership club, and his experiences in a poor Wigan team last year will have added an extra level of on-field fight to the box-to-box player’s locker. He’s also likely to be the cheapest option of all of these suggestions.
- Mikel Arteta [Everton]
In truth this selection could have read Marouane Fellaini, as both the Belgian and the Spaniard are the driving force of everything good that happens at Everton, but it is Arteta who organises the midfield more than his affro-haired teammate. Arteta may be significantly older than Fabregas, but with that age comes experience and a maturity that should make his rumoured £9m valuation a snip.
Bring Back Cesc
Obviously not an immediate opportunity, but Arsenal fans would be foolish to discount the possibility of Fabregas returning to Arsenal sooner than the end of his Barcelona contract. There are those who believe the move to be wrong for both the player and the club, and even despite his skillset and obvious quality, on paper it isn’t as simple to fit him into the Champions League winning team as the size of this transfer might suggest.
Fabregas may well be seen as too “Anglicised” a player to properly fit in at Barcelona. He has after all played for the past eight years, the formative years of his career in fact, in an English Premier league team – and even despite my assertions that Arsenal are an entirely different beast to the majority of English teams – their own style manifesto is still a million miles away from that of the Catalan club.
And not only that, Barcelona have found from within a gem of a player in the shape of Thiago Alcantara who might keep Fabregas out for more games than he would have wished on signing his big new contract.
All of which may well play back into the hands of Arsenal, who have supposedly had a First Option clause pencilled into the midfielder’s contract. But, let’s be honest, even if he’s an unmitigated disaster this season, it isn’t likely Barcelona are going to cash in on a player whose acquisition represents something more than just the addition of a quality player. Because Cesc is one of their own, a Barcelona man who was temporarily stationed elsewhere, and even more so than being just another huge transfer deal, his return is a symbolic home coming.
Arsenal now just have to hope they can find someone else who makes their fans feel that way again, because otherwise it’s going to be a long old season.