There’s one week left before the transfer window slams shut, and despite Arsene Wenger’s claims on Match Of The Day that there are no signings imminent, the press continues to speculate…Karim Benzema, Angelo Di Maria, Demba Ba and Juan Mata are the latest high profile forwards to be linked with a move to the Emirates this summer. Last week, I suggested that only the capture of a “branded signing” (a big name player who has carved their reputation elsewhere) – and a striker at that – will appease the Arsenal masses, despite history suggesting that such players rarely fit into the club’s ethos. And despite 2 away victories in the space of a few days – one on the banks of the Bosphorus and the other in West London – that remains the case. But with Wenger admitting the Suarez deal has gone cold, and Benzema’s agent (on Sunday morning) categorically stating that his player won’t be leaving Madrid, the likelihood of a pricy new striker coming to Arsenal any time soon is dwindling by the day.
Of equal concern is the non arrival of a commanding holding midfielder. What happened to that story which surfaced in June that Everton’s Marouane Fellaini had his heart set on a move to the Gunners, that Mikel Arteta had “sold” the club to his former team mate, and that a deal would be struck within days? My source informs me that Fellaini was ready and willing to come to North London, but that Arsenal prevaricated over the price they were willing to pay for him. The £23 million sum required to trigger his release clause would have been a price well worth paying, but now the chances of him leaving for the Emirates appear roughly similar to those of Suarez venturing south. None. The deal should have been completed before new Manchester United boss David Moyes had chance to get his feet under the table at Old Trafford. Instead, nothing happened. The lesson Arsene Wenger appears not to have learned from his glory days at Arsenal, and those of George Graham, is that in order to win trophies, you need a heavy hitting holding midfielder on your books. Or preferably two.
All successful Arsenal teams’ foundations have been built upon a flexible “back six,” where two midfielders are willing to act as the robust conduit between defence and attack, and display a combative “all for one, one for all” mentality. The historical evidence is there for everyone to see. A few years back, Frank McLintock told me: “I got a lot of plaudits in the 71 Double side. So did ‘Stan’ (Peter Simpson) alongside me as being a solid defensive pairing. I think we were, but I knew full well that in front of me, ‘Snouty’ (Peter Storey) was really the first line of defence, and the opposition were terrified of him, and Eddie Kelly could put his foot in too.”
Arsenal’s legendary back line in 1989, 1991, 1998 and 2002 benefitted massively from the Rocastle / Thomas / Richardson / Hillier and Petit / Vieira axes in front of them. Anfield hero Michael Thomas famously commented: “George’s back four all played well into their 30s. That’s because in front of them, they had Rocky and me do their running for them. We’d both seen our best days by our mid 20s.” In the “Invincibles” campaign, Vieira was partnered by Gilberto. At free kicks, Vieira would always be the first to charge down an opponent’s shot, closely followed by his erstwhile midfield partner. In short, the best Gunners sides over the last forty years have had formidable defensive screens in front of them, and in the case of Petit, Vieira and Gilberto – all Wenger signings – 6 foot plus players who could retreat into central defence if needed, and add a massive aerial threat in the opposition’s box.
Arsenal simply don’t have that kind of screen anymore. The shock absorbers have been surgically removed, and the Gunners are fatally exposed on far too many occasions. It’s slightly unfair to simply lay the blame for defensive mishaps at the feet of individual defenders, and constantly criticise them for failing to operate as a unit. They may not be of the class of Graham’s famous back four, but there’s more to it than that. Adams and Bould held the line safe in the knowledge that they could count on a midfield pairing in front of, and when the occasion called for it, alongside them. Aesthetically, Arsenal are of course, phenomenally easy on the eye, but apart from Flamini putting it about in the 2007 – 2008 campaign, and Alex Song sometimes hassling the opposition (but not always effectively) a couple of seasons back, the days of a flexible back six are long gone. On average, the Arsenal team is around 3 inches shorter and a stone and a half lighter than when they last won the title. There just isn’t enough muscle anymore. Arsenal need a towering midfield presence to strike fear into the opposition’s hearts and break down their attacks before they reach our penalty area. Maybe even two.
Yohan Cabaye is 5 feet 8, and his arrival may disrupt the progress of Aaron Ramsey, whose fine early season form has been a major plus this August. Last summer, the Gunners were linked with Yann M’Vila, the neat and tidy French midfielder, but M’Vila and Cabaye are too similar to what we already have. Bringing in Cabaye would add quality to the squad, but it would also be a case of adding like for like. On the other hand, Fellaini’s arrival would have given Arsenal a completely new dimension; a marauding 6 feet 4 midfielder who can defend as well as attack. He’s the kind of player Arsenal haven’t had on their books since Patrick Vieira’s departure to Juventus in the summer of 2005. A signing who could quickly become a cult hero amongst a crowd which knows the qualities of grit, determination and doggedness are key components of a successful side. Yet he’s destined to become another in a long list of Gunners “targets” who slips through the net. He’s headed for Old Trafford and the grateful clutches of his ex Toffees’ boss David Moyes, whether it’s this summer or next. Another missed target. A key weapon added to United’s already formidable armoury. Not ours. It should have been a different story.
In a week or so, Gunners fans may soon be introduced to new signing Cabaye and possibly even Mathieu Flamini, who seems set to rejoin on a free transfer. Both are neat and tenacious midfielders, but don’t expect any of them to strike fear into the opposition’s hearts and cause mayhem like Marouane Fellaini would have done.